The Passage, by Justin Cronin


I’m pretty bad at planning, organising, general logistics. So, when I was at the airport, realising I only had 20 minutes to get to the gate, I knew I had to make some pretty swift book reading decisions for my two week holiday of doing absolutely nothing. I hit the nearest WH Smith’s and hurriedly pulled off books that looked interesting, grabbing a combination that would keep me amused until I hit the second hand bookshops of Bangkok.

My choices were pretty left field, but had I not been in such a hurry, and had the choice at Smith’s not been so poor,  (James Patterson EVERYWHERE), I probably would never have chosen them. First choice: Hypothermia, by Arnaldur Indridason, a Reykjavik crime novel that I’d heard good things about. And I remembered his Jar City was an award winner, so thought this could be worth a shot. Two: Frederick Forsyth’s Cobra. The back read like Clear and Present Danger, but more violent. I’d read his previous one, The Afghan, and didn’t really like it, but as I said, I was in a hurry. And Three: The Passage, by Justin Cronin.

Now, I’d seen this book all over the place over the previous few weeks; on tubes, on buses, being read on park benches. The eerie front cover of an evil looking girl kept catching my eye.

So, I grabbed it, felt its weight and judged it to be a good 600 pages or so- great as a pillow on the beach if it turns out to be dross. I headed to the plane just in time and settled back with my travel cushion and started reading.

The book is not the 600 pages I thought it was, but a mammoth 960 pages. But I have to say, I really enjoyed it.

Had I know that this book concerns a young girl called Amy who has been experimented on, making her the potential saviour of the world (in essence) when a virus breaks out that destroys the population. I might not have bought it had I known it was another novel that taps in to the ‘bitegeist’, with vampires taking over the world. I might not have bought it had I known at the start that it was part one of a trilogy- committing to 3 thousand pages of anything is a pretty big ask. But I’m very glad I did.

The first half of the book (a good 400 pages) looks at the young girl’s early life and the shady going’s on at a secret government lab, where experiments on longevity, ‘Project Noah’ have been underway. The protagonist in this section is a kind hearted FBI agent, called Wolgast, who has been commissioned by the army/ shady government agency, to recruit death-row inmates for human trials.

This first half slowly introduces you to a host of interesting characters, each with their own detailed back story and it’s only when you hit the halfway mark that you realise very little has happened. It is testament to Cronin’s delicate use of language that despite this, I was still swiftly turning the pages, keen to hear more from these fascinating characters.

So far, so Syfy Channel. Yes, on paper, the story seems pretty hackneyed. But the way Cronin builds up the tension is excellent, the characterisation and the broad sweep of the story, as well as his attention to the finer details (creating a vocabulary of slang for whole communities for example) is great.

As you start to engage totally with these characters, the tone, characters and pace suddenly shifts. at I actually found myself missing some of the characters. And from a slower pace, it becomes a rollicking actioner, totally immersing you in a bizarre and detailed world where humanity is on the brink of extinction.

It’s not a book that is easy to write about without giving away much of the plot. What I will say is that Cronin’s prose is elegant, his character’s surprisingly sympathetic (even some of the beastly ones) and the action is top notch.

It isn’t a book that will change the world, and it isn’t even one that has any strong message about the way we live our lives (thought there is much room for it) but it kept me flicking through the pages at a rate of knots. Cronin has carved a distinct niche here: the character-driven-post-apocalyptic-vampire-epic.

You’re unlikely to see another review on this site about any kind of vampire novel (I was sick of them when Interview With a Vampire came out in ’94) but as a holiday read, this one had me reading half of it in one sitting and getting me pretty damn sun burnt in the process.

Have a read of this one. You’ll know within 50 pages if it’s for you. As for the other two books I took with me to Thailand, I’ll post my review of Hypothermia next. I’m not going to review Forsyth’s book. Have a read of this very funny Guardian review and you’ll see why I can’t be bothered.

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