The Passage by Justin Cronin
Eagle-eyed, calendar-sensitive readers may have noticed that I haven’t posted a book review in over a month. That’s partly because after Florence & Giles I read Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising sequence for about the eighth time and I don’t tend to review re-reads. But it’s mostly because after that, I read The Passage.
Justin Cronin’s post-apocalyptic sci-fi tinged horror novel has had some very enthusiastic reviews from generally trustworthy sources. A major studio bought the film rights before it was even finished, such was their confidence that The Passage would prove to be a major success. And it has.
I don’t know why, though. Because The Passage really is a god-awful mess. A 1,000-page god-awful mess.
Actually, no. It’s not a 1,000-page mess, because the first couple of hundred pages are relatively good, with well-developed characters who are engaging, if a little clichéd, plus a decent pace and multiple intriguing plot threads. Not brilliant, by any means, but I wanted to keep reading and I cared about the characters – the same characters, by the way, to whom all the book’s blurb refers. The ones you could be forgiven for thinking the book might reasonably be about.
It’s a pity, then, that most of these characters are cursorily abandoned at the end of the first section, remaining entirely or mostly absent for the next 800-odd pages of this tedious, undisciplined, repetitive pile of nonsense. Instead, the large majority of the novel focuses on characters from the Colony, a sort of quarantined community descended from children evacuated when a mysterious virus, which turns victims into savage, light-fearing, non-speaking, super-strong vampiric monsters, sweeps across the United States. And those characters are dull. Really, really dull. There’s blandly self-pitying Peter and his equally bland brother Theo; there’s tough girl Alicia (whose nickname ‘Lish’ grated on me so much I wanted hurl the book across the room every time I saw it simpering out of the page); there’s Sara, the closest thing the Colony has to a doctor; there’s her brother Michael, a technology expert. And some others who are so boring I can’t even be bothered to remember their names.
Michael was mildly interesting and certainly the only one of the bunch I actually wanted to survive. The others I cared nothing for whatsoever. Deaths in the novel (and there are many) are rendered utterly unaffecting by Cronin’s clunking prose and paper-thin characterisation. Even Amy, the mute potential saviour of mankind, is about as interesting as cold porridge.
The plot may seem promising, but it’s so lazily executed that I struggled to give a toss what was going to happen next for at least two-thirds of the novel. It’s browbeatingly repetitive, consisting almost entirely of the Colony either fighting off attacks from ‘virals’ or sending people off on expeditions outside where they mostly end up doing much the same. There’s a lot of ill-thought-out nonsense about the virals’ all-important telepathic abilities, but it’s vaguely rendered and full of glaring inconsistencies, as is the Colony itself. It’s action-packed, but the action is written to a formula repeated ad nauseam, so I found myself yawning every time things were supposed to be getting exciting. The whole book reads rather as if Cronin was getting paid by the page, or simply writing down a description of a 26-part big-budget American TV series he was imagining in his head. It’s episodic, drawn-out and slow.
Some reviewers have compared The Passage to Stephen King. In the sense that Stephen King is long past his best and has lately been known to write over-long, indulgent, ramblingly incoherent novels that need editing down by around half, perhaps that's fair. But that’s where the comparison should end.
The Passage, apparently, was written after Cronin’s young daughter turned up her nose at the acclaimed literary novels with which he began his career and suggested that he write genre fiction instead about a girl who saves the world. I’ve never read any of Cronin’s previous work, but The Passage does very much read like a book being written by a man with nothing but contempt for popular fiction or genre novels in any sense other than how thickly they might line his pockets. There's not a speck of pride or care in the way this book has been written; it's genre fiction written by someone who thinks it's easy. And Cronin's daughter should probably be humanely killed before she has any more rotten ideas.
Don’t waste your time on this one. Life is too short to plough through 1,000 pages as bad as these.