There is so much to love about The Ferryman that I hardly know where to begin. Justin Cronin’s first novel since his amazing Passage trilogy is filled with unforgettable characters, twists galore, and plenty of gravitas and pathos to get your heart racing…and breaking.
I’m hesitant to say too much because there are so many ideas in this book, and so many things to spoil. What I can say is that Cronin goes out of his way to make his characters’ lives—and flaws—the kinds of things we can easily recognize, even in a novel where nothing is really what it seems.
In a place called Prospera, a man named Proctor—the ferryman—helps those at the end of life go on to whatever is next. But what is next? The early notes of The Ferryman have a sort of light-creepy effect. Is Proctor leading them to their death? Or to some grisly recycling plant? Is the promise of rebirth just empty words?
Little by little, Proctor’s life is revealed to us—and, it has to be said, to Proctor himself. Just when we learn something about Proctor, his family, his colleagues, his work, there is also a note of doubt. Is what we’re reading the real story? As with Cronin’s earlier work, the answer is often no. And that’s pretty much the point. Is anything that happens to us the real story?
So many writers tackle big themes on big canvases, only to leave us confused, shocked, and eager for something perhaps a little more tangible. Cronin goes in the opposite direction: big themes, big canvas, yet written about a few people we can relate to and even see ourselves in. We turn the pages of his huge novels not because we can’t wait to see what happens next—though we can’t. Instead, we turn the pages, trying somehow to devour and savor at the same time, because we care about his characters and what happens to them.
Still, though, Cronin’s high-wire act will mess with your mind. Much like a long section in The City of Mirrors, the third novel in his trilogy, broke open the whole saga unexpectedly, providing the true origin of the entire narrative and giving the narrative a greater heft and the characters a sense of purpose and timelessness, The Ferryman’s eleven o’clock revelations play the same role. Once we begin to understand what this novel is actually about, the work becomes something almost wholly new, and the relationships between the characters—all of them wonderful—deepen significantly. Everything becomes clear…and unforgettable. ◊
You can buy The Ferryman here.