Review: The Passage, Justin Cronin

I felt really like I’d been pestered to read this one, it’s been in the Bookseller’s Favourite section of every branch of Waterstones for the past year and a half.  Still, I waited for the paperback and now I’m glad I did, since I won’t have as long to wait for the sequel.  I’m also glad I’d paid attention to the bookseller recommendation because otherwise I wouldn’t have gone anywhere near it; it’s completely unlike anything I’ve read before – I normally avoid vampire fiction like the plague.  Twilight was one of those rare books that I couldn’t bring myself to finish due not only to the writing being so gobsmackingly awful but also I could see where the plot was going and I couldn’t be bothered plodding through to the end.  I did see the films though and giggled all the way through. 
Anyway, back to The Passage.  The story starts in the near future with an eerie little girl who may have special powers, she then gets abandoned by her mother then kidnapped by the FBI who are working for the army who are developing a virus to make super-soldiers and need Amy to test on.  This is because the normal Death Row prisoners they tested the virus on first all started hanging upside down in their cells, turning orange and grew fangs.  Can you see where this is going?  Oh yes, there’s a big “Uh-oh!” moment when the virus gets out the lab and about ninety percent of the world’s population is wiped out.  Flash forward a century later and humanity is scraping along and barely surviving, cue an intrepid band of survivors who leave/are chased from their Colony to try and Seek the Truth. 

After picking at it for a few months, I read it in three days, once I got past the stuff in the lab it really sped up.  I like it when an author spends the time to flesh out a convincing cast of characters and I thought that their relationships were surprisingly well drawn given that there were so many of them. I also liked the way Cronin described every possible facet of the post-vampire post-apocalyptic world through each of the characters’ experiences.  It was difficult to know who to get attached to though, with so much left unclear waiting for the sequel and so many people who you thought had died turned up alive.  Plus there were two flat out mysteries that had me reaching for Google once I’d finished to see whether anybody thought the same that I did. 
I think the reason I could cope with the vampire side of things was because Cronin set the rules of the condition fairly reasonably as a man-made virus rather than anything supernatural, sort of like Audrey Niffenegger’s description of Henry Detamble’s time travelling.  I thought that the Movie Night episode when Peter (the lead in the second section) met the Expeditionary (a group of soldiers dedicated to spending their lives defeating the Virals/Vampires) and they watched an old Dracula movie allowed for a useful contrast between the classic view of vampires and Cronin’s interpretation without seeming too clunkingly obvious as a plot device.  Another thing I liked was Grey’s thoughts on time as he began to descend into the viral state, the idea of time overlay was pretty relevant given the one hundred year time jump.  

I think though that the thing that I liked about Cronin’s vampires most of all was their humanity.  First of all, Carter (an under-used character) was the one we heard most from and he was tragically sweet. More than that though was the way that Amy sensed their feelings and the bit that haunted me was the way she regretfully forgave a group of penitent vampires saying “Never mind but try not to do it again”, knowing of course that they would.  The fact that virals always returned home after infection was given an added meaning when it became clear what home was changed for different people.  One man went back to his daughter’s cot, another to his adulterous wife’s side.  Home was quite literally where the heart was and although the virals had apparently lost their humanity, the people they had been remained.Another thing which I thought was unusual was the fairly heavy Biblical references – Peter leading the intrepid crew off, the images of the Twelve with the Zero who had recruited all of them.  Normally, vampirism seems to be all about the sex – Buffy the Vampire Slayer, True Blood, Twilight – it all comes down to hormones and the bedroom action.  The Passage is thinking about humanity on a more global scale and while I’m not going to pretend that the story is cliche-free, it was a breath of fresh air in an increasingly stale genre. 

I did have to wonder a bit about how a century afterwards, when the gang get out of the Colony, somehow or other all of this derelict equipment could be miraculously restored to full working order.  Michael the Circuit seemed talented, but that was more like wizardry.  I also was not too sure about Alicia as a character, she was a bit too all-powerful as well as being beautiful and having the male lead in love with her, but I did like that she ended up being the super-soldier that the researchers had originally sought to create.  On a further note, although it was imaginative that the survivors used ‘Flyers’ as a swear word given that they were the worst thing they knew, the fact that that was the only swear word they had jarred a little since they apparently felt the need to start every sentence with it.  
Still, I found a lot of the descriptive passages very effective without seeming over the top, particularly the part in Las Vegas although I sort of felt Cronin there angling for a movie deal.  This always makes me sad since I think that some books should rejoice in the fact that they are unfilmable, that is why they were written as books, to be read, to give pleasure through the reading experience and to allow the reader their own vision of how it worked.  Possession, for example, is one of my favourite books and it made a truly terrible film.  The Passage however is basically an action movie in print and fair play to Cronin for it. 
What carried it away from being just an action movie in a book for me though was Wolgast.  He is amazing.  And his final appearance in the book actually prompted tears, not something I expected this book to be able to do.  Brad Wolgast was the FBI agent who was originally ordered to take Amy but it was his fatherly love for her that saved her life in every sense possible.  Cronin originally thought up the story for his daughter and it this theme of parental unconditional love that carries this book to a higher level.  I can definitely see why it was a bookseller favourite nation-wide.  
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The Passage by Justin Cronin
Published by Hachette UK on June 24th 2010
Genres: Fiction, General, Horror, Fantasy, Science Fiction, Literary
Pages: 688
ISBN: 9781409107262

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