Justin Cronin’s The Passage is not just a book. It’s an epic. The first part of a trilogy, this instalment alone could easily have been sold as three separate novels, such is its breadth and depth.
From an author known primarily for his literary works, The Passage is not – to my mind – essentially a horror novel but a story which recounts the lives of roughly a dozen people separated by a hundred years and the gulf of an apocalyptic tragedy. A single thread ties these people together, the girl from nowhere, the one who walked in, the girl who lived a thousand years: Amy Harper Bellafonte.
This novel can be broken down roughly into three parts. In the first part we meet Amy in approximately the modern day. We see the events which lead up to the vampire apocalypse which is at the heart of this story. In the next part we are suddenly transported forward 100 years and follow a group of survivors living in a compound believing that they are, perhaps, the last human survivors on earth. They live within the walls of their compound where electric lights and a constant vigil keep the vampiric threat at bay. In the final part of the novel a group of these survivors leave their home, partly in a desperate attempt to seek help as the generators that protect their community are about to die, but also for the sake of a new arrival: the mysterious Amy.
At the beginning of the novel Amy is a six year old girl – but there is clearly something peculiar about her. Abandoned at a convent by her mother and protected by Sister Lacey, the girl seems to produce a peculiar effect on some of those around her. A particularly wonderful segment which takes place at a zoo, reveals beyond a doubt that there is something very strange about this girl.
Inter-weaved in this first part, we meet Agent Brad Wolgast, who is employed to secure death row inmates to take part in project Noah: an experimental project where these men are infected with a virus intended to produce living weapons. Wolgast however is then ordered to seek out the abandoned Amy as a child test subject for this experiment and although he initially obeys orders, he comes to love the girl and tries, in vain, to rescue her.
We meet in this section several members of The Twelve, the original test subjects infected at the research facility. Most notably amongst these are Zero, Babcock and Carter. Zero, real name Tim Fanning, was a researcher in Bolivia and the first human to become infected with the virus. Babcock, who was on death row for killing his abusive mother. And Carter, a sympathetic character who was wrongly convicted of murder but so grieved and confused by the events that have transpired against him that he has no means to defend himself.
Cronin goes into great depth and produces vivid histories for each of characters, which provides pathos and motivation. His characters are often deeply flawed but he draws out their pain and shapes it into meaning. Wolgast is a grieving father, which fuels his desire to protect Amy but he is also responsible for gathering the Twelve, including the innocent Carter. Lacey has suffered great tragedy in life when her family was murdered in war time and this spurs her on to protect the child. There are no throw-away characters in this novel, each is like an intricate chess piece, each action and reaction loaded with consequence and meaning.
Amy is infected with the final version of the virus at the Colorado research facility and shortly afterwards the Twelve break free, thanks to Subject Zero’s manipulation of a sweeper named Grey. Even this character is complex, a paedophile who is injected with hormones as part of his parole conditions, Zero uses his own memories of sexual encounters to manipulate the man.
From this point Amy and Wolgast alone escape from the Colorado facility. Wolgast takes her to an isolated summer camp where they intend to wait out the apocalypse but an atomic explosion erupts near their cabin and Amy continues on alone.
This novel requires a lot of attention. Nothing is spoon fed to the reader. So many characters are introduced and so many events occur that it is at times necessary to stop and think or re-read sections to ensure you understand events. While Amy is the protagonist, the story is never told specifically from her point of view – she remains distant and mysterious to us. Instead we see through the eyes of the characters around her, whether directly or indirectly.
Cronin does something very clever in this first section of the book – the significance of which is never explained. Although Amy is chosen virtually at random because she is alone and friendless in the world, it seems peculiar to the reader that a child who is so clearly special should happen to be chosen. Slowly it dawns on the reader that Amy is not chosen because she is special – but that she is special because she will be chosen. Time seems to warp around Amy, some form of precognition affects her and those people around her in their desperate attempts to prevent the coming catastrophe. Even the animals at the zoo sense the doom that follows in her wake.
At times Amy is just a child, innocent, lonely and afraid. Yet at other times Amy is like a force of nature, unstoppable, unknowable and removed. Every event that occurs revolves around her.
This first part of the novel was utterly gripping. For it’s length and the care and attention it paid to each character, it simply flowed off the page. Each person and each event was like a single crystalline work of art, an intricate spiders web of flawed, heroic, frightened, courageous and desperate people woven together.
I wish this part of the book could have been twice as long. I wanted to know about each of the Twelve. Each time a character was introduced I wanted to know more and more about their past, their motivations and fate. But that’s the secret of great story telling – always leave them wanting more. And there was more. Much more.