(2023) Justin Cronin, Orion, £16.99, trdpbk, 549pp, ISBN 978-1-409-18208-5
Is it any surprise that The Ferryman is a weighty tome, given Cronin is the author of The Passage Trilogy that epic trilogy about a vampire apocalypse? So this is a loooong book, consisting of a prologue, an epilogue and divided into eight parts that are further divided into 41 chapters. Some of the parts have some foreboding titles such as “The Last Beautiful Day”, “The Storm”, and “The Man Who Broke the Sky” which gives the reader a flavour of what is to follow.
But what is following? Well, the title is obviously an allusion to Charon, the ferryman of the dead in Greek mythology, but in this novel Proctor Bennett’s job is to ferry the living at the end of their lives from the island, Prospera, over to an island called The Nursery where their memories are wiped, and their bodies are refreshed to that of 16 year olds, and they can begin a new life back on Prospera. While the islanders enjoy their lives, all is not well in Bennett’s life. He’s good at his job, although his performance is dropping. He’s unhappily married to Elise, a fashion designer, who happens to be the daughter of Callista, the most powerful woman on the island in her role as the Chair of the Board of Overseers for all Prospera.
Proctor Bennett also dreams, and sleepwalks, which practically no-one else does, and he has noticed how bad some of the so-called art that the islanders produce actually is. Then things really take a turn for the worse as he has to ferry his own 126 year-old father, Malcolm, over to the nursery and the old man doesn’t want to go quietly and there is an incident which reflects badly on Bennett whose state of mind isn’t helped by his father telling him “You’re not … you,” words which seem to get inside his head as he starts to have strange visions and can’t seem to distinguish what is real and what is fantasy.
Proctor meets Thea who, perhaps because she is an art dealer, has also realised how bad the local art is, and soon he is journeying to the Annex, an island inhabited by the people who serve those on Prospera, who are regarded as being a lower class, mentally and physically, and where the group known as the Arrivalists are forming to challenge the status quo.
There is a twist: a revelatory reveal that turns everything on its head. This turns the novel into something else: something action-packed and fast-paced, something that isn’t too far away from being a Mission Impossible movie. Despite the quote from Stephen King on the cover, I’m not too sure this novel is as good as everyone says. It is a good read, but it is slow at the start and a bit of a slog until it finally gets going. Also I’m not sure if it is that original as I was certainly reminded of Utopian/Dystopian novels of the past, and I couldn’t help think of Logan’s Run with its palm flower embedded in the hands of the population which turns black to indicate that your life is over. Maybe it was the setting, but I was also reminded of Ira Levin’s This Perfect Day where the population are gently euthanised when they reach a certain age; and because of the mysteries and setting in The Ferryman, I also thought of Christopher Priest’s Dream Archipelago novels. I’m sure other readers will be reminded of some classic Utopian/Dystopian novels all the way from Jonathan Swift, through Shelley, Wells, Bradbury, Dick, right up to Margaret Atwood, and the mysteries of Susanna Clarke’s recent Piranesi. Certainly, after the twist in the plot some blockbuster science fiction films and TV series will also spring to mind. In addition, there is also a slight satirical edge to Cronin’s novel as the inhabitants of Prospera – given their occupations and interests, surroundings and possessions – could easily pass as well-off members of American society living next to the sea, possibly harking back to Cronin’s early, non-genre, pre-Passage novels, concerning aging protagonists with secrets.
Fans of Cronin’s previous novels will obviously want to read this, a story which is totally dissimilar to his Passage Trilogy, and he is to commended for coming up with something so different in subject matter, pace, and plot to his tale of vampire apocalypse, and despite its unevenness, The Ferryman underlines his status as a novelist to be watched and enjoyed, and I’ll certainly look forward to what he comes up with next which will no doubt be very different, again.
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