Horror is not usually my thing at all.
I don’t like blood. I get bored by violence. I get worried by crime writing’s increasing interest in hugely violent bloodied crime scenes and the minutiae of destruction that can be inflicted on the human (and usually female) form.
So it was with some misgivings that I approached Justin Cronin’s The Passage. In all honesty, it was The Twelve I picked up and then backtracked to The Passage as the first in the trilogy.
There was nothing original about the plot: scientists discover new virus with the potential to cure disease and prolong life; the US military take it over to produce super soldiers; the virus is tested, the test subjects become develop vampire-like abilities; the test subjects escape and slaughter or convert most of the population of the world. A plucky band of survivors later discover both the truth of the outbreak and how to defeat the vampire threat.
So far so predictable.
But this book is lifted above the plodding re-hash of this somewhat tired plot by the richness of the characters that live (and un-live?) in this world.
It’s a long read – 847 pages in my e-version – and has taken a long investment of time. But you are swallowed up in the worlds that Cronin creates absolutely. Note how in keeping with the vampiric theme I said swallowed rather than immersed there. Smug grin to myself.
I also say “worlds” deliberately. It is a book of two halves: both pre- and post-apocalyptic. The link between these worlds is the main character, the child Amy Harper Bellafonte, named by her mother after Harper Lee, who wrote To Kill A Mockingbird. We learn this in the opening page of the novel and the literariness and intertextuality suggested here abound in the book. The book is divided into eleven parts and each one is introduced by a quotation of or from literature – often Shakespeare although Percy Bysshe Shelley, Katherine Anne Porter, Louise Gluck, Henry Vaughan and Sir Walter Raleigh also appear.
Amy has echoes of Scout from To Kill A Mockingbirdthroughout the novel: self-contained, self-educated, knowing. But she is a Scout without an Atticus: her biological father is a drunkard and abuser and abandoned by the narrative sharply. Her mother is forced by circumstances into prostitution and eventually abandons Amy to a convent. In fact the emotional honesty and empathy of her mother Jeanette’s descent into prostitution and murder was one of the most effective and affective description of despair I have read.
Amy is the thirteenth subject of the virus: after twelve unsuccessful tests on death row inmates, FBI Agent Wolgast is dispatched to collect Amy so that it can be determined whether her immature state would accept the virus better than the grown inmates.
Wolgast becomes perhaps the Atticus-like father-figure for Amy: she takes the place of his dead daughter, he takes the place of her father. Their relationship again is an unexpected pleasure in the book: his attempt to escape with her before they reach the compound; his sitting with her after she’s been infected; his rescue of her after the infected have escaped; his isolation with her as the world dies around them.
Cronin managed to avoid the temptation to linger on violence or to depict the overrunning of the world with vampires. He closets Wolgast and Amy in the mountains and, save for the occasional piece of rumour, gossip or news, he concentrates on deepening the relationship between them.
The post-viral world was perhaps less successfully created: I found it hard to keep track of the families and relationships in The Colony but that may reflect more on my lack of brain power than Cronin’s writing. But the disintegration of society there, created when Amy re-emerges, was shockingly credible.
Eventually, a plucky band leave The Colony with Amy in order to save her from potential mob justice. At one level they could be seen as a little cliched; Alicia the fighter, Michael the engineer, Peter the leader, Sara the medic, Hollis the support. They are a typical well balanced team you’d expect in any role playing game. But Cronin does imbue each one with depth, character and interest.
There is so much to praise here. But I think the most praiseworthy is what Cronin leaves out: so much is unexplained or hinted at or suggested; so much is left at being evocative such as Amy’s chaotic moment in the zoo; so much of the violence occurs off the page and there’s no glorying in it; and there was no giving in to the temptation to play sexually on Amy’s chronological ambiguity as outwardly a teenage girl aged a hundred. There’s so much to mention that it’s hard to fit it all in: Sister Lacey, the underlying religious echoes ( the project to create the super soldiers was entitled Project Noah, which is the story that underpin the whole novel).
The book that this most reminds me off actually is Patrick Ness’ The Knife Of Never Letting Go for all that that is a Young Adult novel. The clear trajectory of the novel following the flight of the main characters. And I have the same concern for the rest of the trilogy: as Peter claims at the end of the novel that “Now we go to war” I hope that Cronin remains as restrained and humane as he has here.
Update: for my review of the sequel The Twelve, please click here.