lizabelle: (Old coat new book)
[personal profile] lizabelle
Most of my reviews are confined to GoodReads these days, but I haven't talked about Justin Cronin's The Passage here, and apparently I need to.

I've just finished reading it for the third time, which should tell you something (possibly that I have too much time on my hands). It stands up to re(re)reading pretty well, despite a couple of parts where I wished Cronin's editors had been stricter with him. For such a lumbering giant of a story, Cronin's writing is surprisingly lyrical, his tone wistful as he describes a world full of lost people - which later becomes, literally, a world of lost souls.

Note: there are minor spoilers below, but only for the first part of the book, and nothing that you wouldn't find in a regular newspaper review.

The premise - a government experiment goes horribly wrong, releasing a plague of vampire-like creatures ("virals") that destroy civilisation in a few short years - is simultaneously preposterous and in keeping with the slightly apocalyptic feel of our own world, with its melting ice, polluted cities and religious conflict. The first section, set a few years hence, is peopled by the alienated: a young woman who has been ground down to the limits of existence; a young man haunted by memories of the woman he may or may not have murdered; a jaded FBI agent doing the devil's work on behalf of his employers; a nun hiding from memories of her former life. The lives of all these characters intersect around a six-year-old girl, Amy NLN (No Last Name), who becomes the centrepiece of activity, while around them the world crumbles.

But Cronin doesn't stop at the end of the world. He takes us into the new one, focusing initially on a tiny community of survivors who eke out an existence thanks to the lights that come on each night, keeping the virals at bay.

We meet Michael, who is responsible for making sure the lights are working, and whose knowledge of the future places a terrible burden on him. Sara and Mausami, both struggling with conflicts between duty and desire. Alicia, the best fighter of them all. And Peter, whom we first meet as he watches for his brother, waiting to kill him.

The thing about the plague, or virus, is that it infects: the virals kill most of their victims, but not all, and those who don't die become virals themselves. For me, Cronin's writing is strongest when he is depicting the conflict that arises from these situations. Peter's brother is missing, either dead or a viral, but Peter's grief (and that of the other characters) is raw; his brother is still very much alive in his mind. Yet there is no doubt that, if he appears, Peter will kill him. In a more general sense, the virals are terrifying, nightmarish predators - but they were once people, with lives, lovers and preoccupations of their own.

Into this community comes a girl whose arrival - be it as catalyst or saviour - changes everything. And so the story sets off again, carrying us on an odyssey through a new, ravaged land, replete with danger but also offering just enough hope to keep us going.

The cast of characters is unwieldy, but Cronin generally handles this well - and also seizes the opportunity to deepen the emotional resonance of the book. Minor characters who barely appear on-screen can turn up three hundred pages later and break your heart (admittedly, mine is an easily-broken heart). In Peter's close-knit community, the families' lives have intertwined for generations, resulting in all the tensions, confusion, love and hostility that you'd expect. Characters aren't necessarily good at articulating their passions, but boy, do they have them, and Cronin is a master at the unobtrusive reveal.

Even at the third time of reading, I was caught up in the action and emotions of the story. I didn't want it to end.

So it's a good thing that the sequel, The Twelve, is due out very shortly.
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June 2014

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