I am normally dismissive of ‘long’ books. My general rule of thumb is anyone who needs more than 400 pages to tell a story probably isn’t a good writer. Lengthy books require a significant investment in terms of time as well as emotions which is often hard to justify or feels like something of an extravagant indulgence. Even with Stephen King’s frequent ringing endorsements encouraging my interest, I nevertheless approached Justin Cronin’s 963 page monster with no small amount of marathon-esque trepidation.
But my goodness, what a book! The exception to the rule, perhaps, but a magnificent lesson in how to write, how to develop story lines with supreme care and patience, and how to evolve characters with tremendous empathy and sensitivity. The entire book is built on the unshakable foundation of patience. The plot is unhurried; attention is paid to every detail and every facet of the objects and people appearing in the narrative. Time is taken not only to write but also to rewrite history itself. The vision is vast, expansive and sweeping; Cronin does an absolutely magnificent job in making sure everything is precisely as it should be.
The levels of characterisation are astounding. Nothing is deemed superfluous or irrelevant; we are given extensive information about each and every character we meet and we are allowed to watch and enjoy the way they interact and evolve with each other. The characters are essential to driving the plot forward and they are given all the space they need to breathe, grow and become familiar. We feel a level of engagement and investment with each person we encounter; we come to care for them even if we don’t like them and this is the key to the impact Cronin manages to create when they are so cruelly taken from us.
The crowning achievement is the central of figure of Amy, brilliantly understated, hardly ever centre stage and yet the sole reason for everything which happens. She is a masterful creation, filled with depth, brimming with surprise, suffused with mystery and yet, at the bottom of it all and despite all that happens, still a little girl searching for love. The final scene with Wolgast is an unexpected delight which cannot fail to bring a tear to the eye.
What is even more remarkable is that by the time you breathlessly reach the end of 900+ pages, it becomes clear that the book itself is the foundation for two more gargantuan behemoths to follow in the same series. Cronin has given us a compelling world and populated it with characters we feel for, care about and cry over. Along the way he provides a blistering commentary on the less savoury features of the human race and offers a view of the future which is both believably possible as well as hopelessly forlorn. An excellent read which is highly recommended.