California Literary Review

Book Review: The Passage by Justin Cronin

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June 17th, 2010 at 2:23 pm

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The Passage by Justin Cronin
The Passage
by Justin Cronin
Ballantine Books, 784 pp.
CLR Rating: ★★★★☆


And a Little Child Shall Lead Them

Before she became known as the “girl who lived a thousand years,” Amy Harper Belafonte was just a child conceived out of wedlock in a small Iowa town where her teenage mother worked as a waitress. When things go bad for her mother and then go from bad to worse, Amy ends up in the care of an African nun named Lacey Antoinette Kudoto. Sister Lacey has been hearing and heeding voices since she was a child herself and when Amy comes to her, she recognizes that she’s been chosen for a special destiny.

Meanwhile, deep in the Bolivian jungle, Dr. Jonas Lear and his team of military scientists have discovered that something has gone very wrong. Lear is a man of science and not a praying man but in the last email he sends out before his team is overwhelmed, he asks anyone reading his words to say a prayer for them.

Unfortunately, God is not listening. What Lear has found in the jungle is a virus that becomes the focus of the super-secret “Noah Project,” a longevity experiment that involves deliberately infecting people in order to study the results. When the virus jumps into the general population despite stringent security measures, a world-wide pandemic ensues that depopulates the world faster than you can say “zombie apocalypse.”

The survivors retreat into safe havens wherever they can with Amy and her new protector, an FBI Agent named Brad Wolgast taking sanctuary in what used to be a summer camp. Surrounded by huge numbers of the infected—called “Virals” or “Dracs”—these scattered communities have little communication with each other and only an imperfect understanding of what’s happened and what might be done about it. The only thing that seems clear to the characters is that Amy, whose exposure to the virus has left her slow to age, is somehow the key and that the answers they seek are in the military facility in Colorado.

This book, the first in a planned trilogy, details the journey back to Colorado and provides some, but not all, of the answers to the questions the characters and the readers have.

Justin Cronin has written an epic here. Like Stephen King’s The Stand and Robert McCammon’s Swan Song, this book is a character-driven apocalyptic road trip of a novel that takes us on a journey both physical and metaphysical. His writing transcends genre in every way, including a haunting description of death by nuclear fire. Cronin, the author of two previous novels (Mary and O’Neil and The Summer Guest) has a slew of Lit Fic awards to his credit, including The PEN/Hemingway Award, the Stephen Crane Prize and the Whiting Writer’s Award, so he’s not some hack trying his hand at horror.

The characters here are developed with care, even those who pass through the narrative only briefly. Cronin fills out details in his story with a sheaf of “supporting documents”—from emails to military reports to the journals of various characters—to give us glimpses of varied points of view and the technique works well to give us a sense of the scope of the disaster.

The heroes here are flawed human beings who are trying to build a life after so much death has ensued. Each place the survivors pass through has its own culture and personality, its own rules and mores. The leaders in these outposts of civilization are often driven by harsh imperatives. One of the most intense scenes in the book involves the death of an infected character surrounded by a ritual of the survivors’ own making. There is real emotion in this story, and when characters die, they aren’t faceless cannon fodder.

As with any book that’s got a “quest” structure, The Passage has an episodic plot. Here the story cracks in two, leaving Amy to mourn the death of Brad and rejoining her 100 years later as she shows up outside a colony where the technology that keeps the survivors safe is beginning to fail. There the reader meets a whole new cast of characters—the first of many who will populate the second half of the book. It’s a lot of characters and some register more strongly than others.

Sister Lacey, whose own childhood in Sierra Leone was a nightmare, is a lovely woman we come to cherish and care about. Just as Amy’s mother passed her on to Lacey, the nun passes her on to Brad, who then surrenders her to members of “the First Colony,” who become her adopted family and followers. They’re a solid group of people whose own personal stories complicate and enrich the main storyline, keeping us interested, drawing us in. Theo and Peter Jaxon, descendants of the founders of the colony, pull the focus of the story for much of the tale, and their complicated relationship—with each other, and with the women they love—make for a very human counterpoint to the overall story of survival.

There are multiple love stories here—not just the love triangle that plays out among the adults in the group escorting Amy to Colorado but also in the maternal and paternal love that grows in the child’s relationships with Lacey and Brad. Both these parental figures have a major role to play in Amy’s destiny and their influence goes far beyond their short appearances in the book.

The portrayal of the virals—how they came to be and how they mutate in the century-span of the tale—is familiar but inventive. The early sequences involving the patient zero of the virus are extremely disturbing, particularly when the reader realizes that the virus changes people both mentally and physically. The test subjects, most of them convicted killers and child molesters, are a group of surprisingly sympathetic people who do not deserve what happens to them.

It’s disappointing that the whole story doesn’t play out in one volume—this is a hefty book at nearly 800 pages—but Cronin has given his readers a feast here and they’ll need time to digest it before he delivers the next course.

  • CJ Haggard

    *Warning – Spoilers* I just finished this book and will NOT be purchasing the second installment. What a disappointing ending! After following these characters for 800 pages the last line suggests half of them are just wiped out? The other half are “going to war”???? WTF? Not one iota of a satisfying ending. Virals still there, half the people dead, everything just suspended? IMO it’s a cheap stunt directed at book sales with no thought or care for the reader. It was advertised locally as a “keep you up at night page turner” which it definitely is NOT. My interest ended with book one.

  • Richie

    Fantastic book. Great character depth. Plot was compelling. Definitely kept me up at night reading. Builds a very strong foundation for the trilogy. Loved the breadcrumbs at the end. Looking forward to reading about the war to come and learning the answers to some of the outstanding questions. ps. I disagree with CJ – it’s meant to keep you hanging, it’s a trilogy.

  • Steven

    Incredible. Just finished. Disagreeing with the first post, I think the book accomplishes everything it attempts to do, while still leaving some questions as to what will happen next.
    *Spoilers*
    You don’t really know what happens after Sara’s last entry. Maybe she died, maybe she left that book behind and couldn’t keep writing. Who was responsible? Virals? Other humans? Who’s the bigger evil? Did it start because of Greer in trouble for going AWOL? Those gunshots could have been one incident, leading to a moment of weakness that allowed the virals in. I want to know.

    As for Michael & Amy’s group, what’s next? “War” is pretty vague. They’ve only stopped one of the 12. Where are the people from the colony? Are they like Liza Chou? What is Peter, as Amy asks? Also, what are Amy and Alicia? Anti-virals, anti-dracs, but what does that mean?

    In case you can’t tell I just finished reading moments ago.

  • Uwe

    I´ve read “The Passage” twice, with only a few weeks inbetween and I think it´s the most compelling book I´ve read in years. I can hardly wait to get hold of the next volume, because I really wanna know how the story will unfold after those gunshots mentioned in Sara´s journal…what role will the “good viral” Wolgast play? What about Lish´s and Peter´s relationship? Will it matter that Anthony Carter was innocent? So many questions, so many good cliffhangers…
    In terms of “spoiling” something: I only hope that the movie will live up to the book…

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