(Please note, super duper SPOILERS ahead.)
I have said it before and I’ll say it again: I love big books! And I cannot lie! (I’ll stop there, don’t worry.)
The Passage is a doorstop at 759 pages. I started balking at the dwindling remaining pages somewhere around 600. And at the last page, I became annoyed that I have to wait who know how long until the second installment is finished and released.
This is a sign of a good read.
I had heard some reviews that thought Justin Cronin’s storytelling fared better in the first half and faltered in the second. I almost avoided the book when I learned Cronin incorporated ‘documents’ into his story – emails, newspaper articles, political documents. I rarely enjoy books that do that. (I still haven’t finished Dracula; diary entries are boring.)
I’m so glad I disregarded all of that and took the plunge. I loved the second half (which will propel the action of the future installments) and Cronin’s use of documents was restrained, so effective.
The Passage begins sometime around 2020. America has been at war for over fifteen years. Jenna Bush is the governor of Texas. And FBI Agent Brad Wolgast is collecting death row inmates from around the country for a military experiment.
Dr. Lear had encountered something in the Amazon that was both frightening and exciting. A virus that will cure disease. But it is out of control and needs to be harnessed properly – everyone infected early on because super healthy for a hot minute then dies a messy, messy death.
Enter Wolgast and his inmates.
Wolgast doesn’t question his job until a last minute job brings him to six-year old Amy Harper Bellafonte, later to be known as Amy NLN. Wolgast lost his daughter years earlier and the grief destroyed his marriage. He cannot surrender Amy to the same fate as the inmates.
My favorite scene in The Passage is when Wolgast takes Amy to a carnival. He has convinced his partner to let them give the give this one last happy experience before handing her over. Wolgast finally gets to taste what it’s like to be a father and it is overwhelming.
At the entrance he paid for their admission and moved down the line to a second booth to buy tickets for the rides. He thought she might want to eat, but decided, to wait; it might, he reasoned, make her feel sick on the rides. He realized he liked thinking this way, imagining her experience, the things that would make her happy . . . She took his hand again as they walked; the feel of her palm against his own was almost electrical, the source of a warm current that seemed to spread through his body as they walked. When she saw the carousel with its glowing deck of painted horses, he felt her pleasure actually pass from her body into his.
The adventure at the carnival is so lovingly written that you know Cronin is a father and using his own experience to describe Wolgast’s. It was the most emotionally vibrant passage in the novel.
Cut to the military base and all hell breaks loose. The Virals are on the loose and although there are only twelve of them, the massacre is swift and the subsequent destruction of the United States inevitable.
The next sections begin with documents: an evacuation notice to remove children from Philadelphia; a first-person account of the evacuation and bombing of Philadelphia; a map of the First Colony Site; and the Document of One Law that establishes the government of the First Colony.
It is a world that fears the night. Tall walls, armed guards and floodlights protect the First Colony from an invasion by the Virals. It has been one hundred years and problems begin to crack the colonists’ existence. Where is the military? Will the lights go out? Why are the Virals now traveling in groups of three?
A small contingent of colonists is compelled to go on a quest to help Amy. They venture past the walls and see firsthand the treacherous world revealed to them on their eighth birthday. A world of fear and death and independence and survival. They must return Amy to where she came from and find a way to live in this world that Virals built.
Part of the reason The Passage is such a long story (especially for being one-third of the planned narrative) is that Cronin languishes in his characters’ lives. He takes the time to describe them, fill in between the lines, take pages and pages for back story. The only offhand references seem to be for a bit of humor (like Jenna Bush as governor) or to pique interest in a forthcoming event. I enjoyed the rambling descriptions of scenes and memories because I always felt closer to that particular character by the end of it. I was invested in each person that Cronin presented – everyone was complicated and interesting and heroic and riddled with faults.
He allows the tags of the documents to hint at the future and provide hope for these characters that have become very real and very sympathetic. They are all part of a presentation of a global conference on the Quarantine Period in New South Wales in 1003 A.V. There is a future which is a relief. But what happens before that future conference? How does the world become a place safe for historic reflection and a conference of all things?
The ending was good for two reasons. First, the group on an odyssey have a plan, a goal. I want to see that journey. Second, the final document consists of pages from one of the colonist’s diary. She has made it safely to Roswell and mentions she is daring to feel hope. The document is marked as ending there and is described as recovered from the Roswell Site, “Roswell Massacre.” What happens to her?!?!?
I love that kind of cliffhanger!
Yes, The Passage will put a kink in your shoulder from sitting heavy in your bag but it is so worth you. You will be entertained and challenged and a bit choked up at some moments. You will be pleased. I was.