The Ferryman by Justin Cronin
Justin Cronin burst onto the big scene with his apocalyptic vampire doorstopper The Passage (first of a trilogy), a fantastically harrowing blockbuster of a novel that still maintained amidst its action/thriller/horror aspects the quietly intimate elements of his earlier literary novels. His newest, The Ferryman, while not quite as strong and despite having a few more noticeable issues, shares some of the same strengths that made The Passage so successful, as I imagine this one will be.
The story takes place on an archipelago isolated from the rest of the world by something known as The Veil, though no one recalls anymore how or why that is. The main island of Prospera is a veritable Eden with an “entirely beneficent” climate, “the most fertile soil,” forests “abundant with wildlife”, a “lush land free of all want and distractions”. Which means its citizens can “devote themselves to the highest aspiration [of] creative expression and the pursuit of personal excellence.” It is a society of “musicians and painters, poets and scholars . . . itself a work of art.” Prosperans are functionally immortal — when they are old or infirm (the latter often signaled by an embedded monitor that measures their physical and mental health) they take a ferry to a second island known as The Nursery where their memories are wiped and they are somehow “reiterated” into a freshly healthy 16-year-old body that is returned to Prospera for a new life as a new identity.
Meanwhile, a third island called The Annex is home to the Support Staff. These are the people who are “born in the old-fashioned manner . . . deprived of the blessings of reiteration.” Commuting daily from their overcrowded, grittier, poorer island, they spend their far shorter lives doing the menial work that allows the Prosperans to focus on those “highest aspirations”
We open, after a prologue, with a first-person narration from Proctor, a 42-year-old relatively high up civil administrator. He is, in fact, the titular ferryman, the person who escorts Prosperans to the ferry that takes them to The Nursery, a job he’s quite proud of.
The fact that he dreams, a rarity on Prospera, hints early on at his difference, though Proctor has lived a mostly unexamined life up to now. That all changes when he is called on to escort his own father to the ferry, a moment that goes horribly wrong and opens up a Pandora’s Box of mystery and trouble, with his father repeating a strange word and telling Proctor, “You’re not . . you.” Events soon spiral out of control, with tensions between Proctor and his wife Elise, Proctor and his mother-in-law Callista (the Director of Prospera). Even worse, he becomes a target of Prospera’s security organization and then eventually caught up in a resistance movement-slash-quasi-religion amongst the Support Staff known as the Arrivalists.
This latter entanglement comes via an art dealer named Thea, whom Proctor meets at a concert where the two of them commiserate on how bad the art on Prospera is, how robotic and lacking in feeling or true vision. Meanwhile, even as Proctor and Thea become more deeply entwined in the politics, the story also gets more and more surreal as Proctor starts to lose his grip on reality, caught up in odd visions of boats and telescopes and possibly even of a young girl name Caeli whom he thought he met while swimming but now he is unsure if she is real or just in his head. Clearly there is a mystery at the core of Prospera, and I’ll just leave it there so as to avoid spoilers.
As noted, The Ferryman shares some of the strengths of Cronin’s earlier books. One of them is an ability to make even a nearly 600-page novel fly by as if it were a novella. I read The Ferryman in one sitting quite happily, never once getting restless or impatient. Well-wrought characters are another positive, ranging from the two main characters Proctor and Thea to characters who get less page time but are no less interesting and who have hidden depths revealed as the book goes on, characters like Proctor’s father or a blind painter Thea works with. Physical descriptions are also vividly detailed. As he has in the past, Cronin also makes effective, thoughtful use of repeated images, which I’d normally go into a bit but here I’m wary of pointing too clearly to what are meant to be surprises, so suffice to say I appreciated the layering effect he creates.
Finally, as with The Passage trilogy, Cronin does a mostly nice job of mixing action scenes — shootouts, car chases, sieges, riots — and quieter relationship-based or introspective scenes, along with some deeper philosophy questions. That said, I think the alloy here is a bit more brittle than in the other works, with some of those scenes and the characters driving them verging a bit on melodrama/cliché. I also think the genre elements are not as well executed or perhaps it’s not so much execution as aren’t so individualized so as to not feel familiar. I think some of the impact of that will depend on how much genre readers of The Ferryman have read. If it’s none or very little, I think they’ll find the novel twisty and pleasantly surprising. Genre fans, though, will most likely see several of the twists coming around the bend and will either find them satisfactory or possibly even a bit deflating in their familiarity. But again, I won’t say more so as to avoid spoiling those twists and turns.
Thematically, there’s a lot being explored. Love in several forms is one subject: romantic love between partners and the love between parent and child. Grief is another. As is class conflict. And it doesn’t take a keen insight to recognize a story set on “Prospera” is highlighting a connection to Shakespeare’s The Tempest, even without the various storms and squalls, a young vulnerable girl, and other allusions (including direct quotes). Or “illusions”, as part of the connection to the play is the question of reality versus illusion, along with the role of art. And like Shakespeare’s play, there’s more than a little meta-fiction going on here in The Ferryman as well.
For most of its length The Ferryman is a fully entertaining novel, and for non-genre readers my guess is it will be so throughout its entirety. It’s also often a thoughtful exploration of its various themes via a mostly original and immersive setting peopled with generally sharply drawn, compelling characters. For myself, I’d be lying if I didn’t say that the predictability/familiarity of its latter part was a little deflating in relation to what had come prior, but even though I was pretty sure I knew where it was going, and was right, the pace never flagged so I never felt any desire to stop or even pause my reading. Recommended for everyone, more highly so for people who don’t read a lot of sci-fi/fantasy.
Published in May 2023. Founded by the mysterious genius known as the Designer, the archipelago of Prospera lies hidden from the horrors of a deteriorating outside world. In this island paradise, Prospera’s lucky citizens enjoy long, fulfilling lives until the monitors embedded in their forearms, meant to measure their physical health and psychological well-being, fall below 10 percent. Then they retire themselves, embarking on a ferry ride to the island known as the Nursery, where their failing bodies are renewed, their memories are wiped clean, and they are readied to restart life afresh. Proctor Bennett, of the Department of Social Contracts, has a satisfying career as a ferryman, gently shepherding people through the retirement process—and, when necessary, enforcing it. But all is not well with Proctor. For one thing, he’s been dreaming—which is supposed to be impossible in Prospera. For another, his monitor percentage has begun to drop alarmingly fast. And then comes the day he is summoned to retire his own father, who gives him a disturbing and cryptic message before being wrestled onto the ferry. Meanwhile, something is stirring. The Support Staff, ordinary men and women who provide the labor to keep Prospera running, have begun to question their place in the social order. Unrest is building, and there are rumors spreading of a resistance group—known as “Arrivalists”—who may be fomenting revolution. Soon Proctor finds himself questioning everything he once believed, entangled with a much bigger cause than he realized—and on a desperate mission to