“The Passage” by Justin Cronin

Title: The Passage
Author: Justin Cronin
ISBN: 9780345504968
Pages: 784
Release date: June 8, 2010
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Genre: Literary fiction (among others)
Format: Hardcover
Source: Millie’s collection
Rating: 2.5 out of 5

I read this book because it was highly recommended on the internet as a vampire apocalypse novel good enough to be called literary fiction. I enjoy post-apocalyptic tales like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and World War Z by Max Brooks. And while I generally find vampires tiresome, I loved Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend, so I figured Justin Cronin could make it work. But overall, I thought The Passage was uneven, inconsistent and overwrought.

The first chapter seemed designed to establish the book’s literary credentials, with a heartfelt story of the origins of the girl who lived a thousands years, born Amy Bellafonte. And while it is effective in introducing Amy and her mother, it also begins the troubling pattern of abrupt shifts in the narrative which often disrupt the story. Chapter 2 begins 17 pages later, with a creepy expedition into the jungle that uncovers something terrible and serves to establish the story’s horror bona fides.

The third chapter is another shift in location, characters, and so forth, this time to a proto-fascist near-future America. These characters at least stick around for a while. The story centers around Special Agent Wolgast, who has the unsettling job of interviewing death row inmates and convincing them to sign away all rights in exchange for their lives. What fate befalls them when they get to Colorado isn’t anything Wolgast wants to know.

But when he is charged with picking up the orphan Amy, currently the ward of a group of nuns, he knows he is crossing a line from which he cannot return. The first third of the book is a breakneck thriller, as various people try to get their hands on Amy. But the tension is muted because you know something extraordinary has to happen to her so she can become the Millennial Girl.

And then, once this situation is resolved, the novel skips forward ninety years to a post-apocalyptic compound in California. A whole new cast of characters is introduced, along with the rules of this new vampire-fearing reality. The vampires hate light, so floodlights keep the compound safe. But the batteries, charged by nearby wind turbines, are wearing out; without any way to make new ones, an expedition is needed to find a replacement. Thus, a band of intrepid young explorers must venture outside the safety of the lights to save civilization.

These shifts in setting, character and tone weighed down the momentum of the novel. This was the story’s central weakness. It is hard to reinvest yourself in new characters halfway through a story. And the problem isn’t just characters. At various times, this story attempts to be the following genres:

  • Thriller
  • Supernatural suspense
  • Post-apocalyptic horror
  • Military fiction
  • Fantasy
  • Literary fiction

And it doesn’t just borrow elements of these different genres; the novel always dives in headfirst, with jarring results. I couldn’t really commit to the story because it kept trying to be something new.

I’ve heard they are making a movie of this story, and I wish them luck–I have no idea how they are going to pull it off. This novel contains half a dozen different stories at least.

By the end, I really didn’t care about this novel. The plot twists and stunning coincidences seemed simply trite. And while individual pieces of the story could be great (strong prose, some interesting characters, a few vivid images of suspense and horror), overall, nothing comes together. The book asks too much of the reader to connect the many mismatched parts of this nearly 800-page story. And it’s a trilogy, so don’t expect too much closure at the end.

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