I’d heard a bunch of things about The Passage, not least that there was a bidding war over it and that it’s ‘the new Twilight’. Having struggled lately to find something that caused me to drop off the face of the earth in obsessive, devouring-it-record-short-time reading in the same way that Harry Potter and Twilight had, I thought I’d give it a crack.
The short verdict is that I really, really enjoyed it. The long verdict—and one that’s only becoming clear to me now that I’m not buried in the book’s tome-meets-phonebook 766 pages—is that I really, really liked it, and I wanted to and kind of did really, really love it, but it perhaps doesn’t quite live up to the ‘new Twilight’ hype.
Its back cover reads:
Deep in the jungle of eastern Colombia, Professor Jonas Lear has finally found what he’s been searching for—and wishes to God he hadn’t. In Memphis, Tennessee, a six-year-old girl called Amy is left at the convent of the Sisters of Mercy and wonders why her mother abandoned her. In a maximum security jail in Nevada, a convicted murdered called Giles Babcock has the same strange nightmare, over and over again, while he waits for lethal injection. In a remote community in the California mountains, a young man called Peter waits for his beloved brother to return home—so he can kill him. Bound together in ways they cannot comprehend, for each of them a door is about to open into a future they could not have imagined. And a journey is about to begin. An epic journey that will take them through a world transformed by man’s darkest dreams, to the very heart of what it means to be human. And beyond.
Setting aside the fact that the blurb writer either hadn’t quite read the book or took some creative licence with the storylines to hook us in, the blurb worked. Although re-reading it, I keep thinking that: Lear doesn’t wish he hadn’t found what he found—at least, not until much, much, much, and relatively insignificantly later; the six-year-old never really wondered why her mother abandoned her—that’s what makes her so unlike other six-year-olds and the ethereal being upon which the book hinges; and Babcock and his dream don’t really feature in the prison cell—the focus is on another condemned man, Anthony Carter. The Babcock dream stuff turns up later and in a different form.
But if the back cover blurb isn’t enlightening for those of you who haven’t tackled its hefty volume of pages, here’s the summary: a scientist pairs up with the US Army to conduct research deep in the Colombian jungle and his findings create a kind of vampire-like (although not in the strict sense of vampires as we know them: blood-sucking Dracula-like, vegetarian Twilight-like, or otherwise) creatures created through being infected by this virus.
Of course, the ‘jumps’, ‘dracs’, ‘virals’, or ‘smokes’ as they’re variously known make it out of the lab and wreak havoc across North America and possibly the world, devouring everyone or turning them into one of their own. The (or an—they’re not really sure if there are others) outpost of human survivors exist pretty much on a 24/7 watch against these bloodthirsty creatures, taking turns on the watch, and living in fear that the lights (which the virals don’t like) will go out and the compound walls will be breached. Then there’s a mysterious six-year-old girl whose ‘otherness’ comes into play.
The Passage is, in short, the classic hero’s journey:
- The ‘hero’ lives an ordinary existence but is called to adventure (think The Lord of the Rings’ Frodo receiving the ring and having to leave his safe Hobbit home to return/destroy it).
- The hero refuses the call, due to fear, lack of confidence, etc, but then is guided by a supernatural aid who appears at just the right time, and they cross the threshold, i.e the point of no return.
- The hero endures a series of tests, tasks, or ordeals in order to undergo transformation (think of all the challenges Frodo encounters on the way to the mountain, including doubting his friends and almost being corrupted by the ring’s power).
- The hero overcomes these obstacles and returns home a new and improved person/Hobbit/[insert character type here].
The hero’s journey formula perhaps why I enjoyed it—that format has been used countless times and is the basis of just about every Hollywood blockbuster. But it’s perhaps also why, combined with the fact that I didn’t find most of the storyline ‘fresh’ or ‘groundbreaking’, I couldn’t shake the feeling that it was something I’d encountered in various textual and filmic incarnations before. The creatures that eat or turn you and the last outposts of humanity? That’s most stories, including the recently read zombie romance The Forest of Hands of Teeth (which I also enjoyed). The virus that creates these creatures? Again, most books or films, including Will Smith’s I Am Legend. The journey through treacherous landscapes to overcome obstacles, including people who can’t be trusted? That’s Tomorrow When The War Began, The Road, and The Lord of the Rings, with The Passage reminiscent of the latter not least because the final scenes take place in a kind of mountain.
Perhaps my most consistent thought—both while I was reading it and once I’d made it through—was do we really need 776 pages of text to cover this? The story is well balanced and doesn’t feel overly slow in too many parts, but there was a part of me that was pretty unimpressed that you get to the end to find—spoiler alert—that the book is really just the beginning and we’re really staring down the barrel of what is at its shortest going to be a trilogy. Still, I’d be lying if I didn’t want to know what happened and could put the book down. I spent two solid days powering through it and getting frustrated if anyone interrupted that effort by doing things like phoning me.
I may have skimmed some passages, thinking back story, back story, yada, yada, back story, but I did appreciate that Justin Cronin’s tale was better written (he’s an English professor and has won awards for his previous novels) than, say, Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series. His characters and storyline are more sophisticated, tightly written, and better fleshed out. The issue is that a post-apocalyptic tale of creatures created out of a virus that met with scientific experiments to make an immortal human being isn’t entirely new and, though incredibly gripping, and though I’ll definitely read and (I’m sure) enjoy further instalments of the story, it took the final 100 or so of almost 800 pages to surprise me. Here’s hoping that part two of The Passage will break out of the hero’s-journey-meets-end-of-the-world mould.