Review: The Passage by Justin Cronin

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Phew … if nothing else can be agreed upon about Justin Cronin’s The Passage, it’s certainly a hefty volume of fiction. I have two fears when approaching a novel of this magnitude; first that much of the contents will be surplus to requirement, and second, the writing will be less and less focused as the story continues. However, my expectations were exceeded, and all 766 pages of Cronin’s epic apocalyptic work hold something extraordinary.

The Passage follows the story (or many stories) of the world’s destruction through a multitude of characters so real they could live next door. At the centre of the story of  is Amy, a mysterious six-year-old with a dark past and uncertain future who just might hold the key to world salvation. Unlike most post-apocalyptic tales, Cronin choses to begin at the beginning, at the very threads of conception that lead to humanities undoing. The plot assumes with general undertakings of the everyday in the near future, and then travels the length of nearing 100-years into a period where the remaining clusters of humans are struggling for survival against a race of vampire-esque monsters. Whats wonderful about this ambitious attempt is that we witness ordinary persons, through various ventures of everyday cruelty and natural curiosity, turn into the beasts haunting the future United States. In fact Cronin could have chosen to part the book into two novels, with the second three-quarters working as a squeal to the first, instead he utilises transitions in the form of personal diaries, shifting the time difference without losing perspective or a sense of space. Somehow, throughout the plot’s journey and its many transitions in both time and place, the reader always knows where they are. Plot strands are all tied neatly into one another, reading, as the title suggests, like a passage where puzzle-pieces trail like breadcrumbs, bringing events into the fray with masterful pace, and slotting them into place. While it’s certainly long, no information or descriptive paragraph is used as padding, and while cutting some passages wouldn’t have been unwarranted, a lot of dynamic could have lost to a tauter narrative. Cronin exhibits a beautiful, careful writing style.

Most stories place their audiences in the position of the fourth-wall, but Cronin’s work engages so well with the human condition, as a reader I felt more like an object accidentally left in someone’s pocket, and subsequently passed from character-to-character during the progression of the plot. As you can imagine in a book this thick, there are a lot of characters, each carved with their own relatable  personality and detailed history. Every individual is distinguishable, and even very minor characters come equipped with rationals and comprehendible reasons for their actions. Cronin has crafted a host of protagonists you won’t know you care about so much until the worst might happen. Everything about this work relates to its stream of fleshed out characters  (I’m using that word a lot here), creating an atmosphere I can only describe as human, so close to our condition and the threat we as people pose ourselves, the fear that it could all happen one day is hard to push away, even long after the novel has ended.

It isn’t all cherry and roses though; towards the end Cronin diminishes some of his hard work with a few cheap tricks to lift the tension, something he didn’t need to do since it was running pretty high from the get-go. For example, late in the game, when a team of protagonists seems to disband, Cronin pushes a romance scenario into the story all too quickly without really having eluded too it much in the past. Another disappointment was the final fall of the antagonist (if you can call him that). After taking precious pages to re-introduce him as a ruff-nut, villain with an incredible army at his disposal, the final blow seemed all too easy. I’m nit-picking a little bit, but when everything else about the book gelled together so seamlessly, the few blemishes stood out. Other than the aforementioned final-blow, fall-short the ending is pretty clean, and primed for a sequel (which there absolutely must be), with some strands of plot hanging for the next installment. Pay attention to the final notes at the end, and the final implication is pretty severe.

Cronin has created a world similar to, but entirely different from, our own modern living. He introduces a chilling example of what might be, of the struggles that surround our technology and our constant need to understand what’s around us, and also what happens if we try to control it. Fantastical nightmarish visions of popular locations install a constant sense on unease, while the scientific and technical research undertaken adds to the deeper horror that this could all be possible.  This is exciting, heart-wrenching, bone-shaking, thrilling drama. This is post-apocalyptic fiction as it should be.

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