Justin Cronin has moved on from his compulsive post-apocalyptic vampiric Passage trilogy to something a little different. The Ferryman is a standalone puzzlebox of a book which delivers action and pathos and a little philosophy as it seeks to ask some bigger questions about humanity and what it might be capable of.
After a fairly distressing cold open, The Ferryman introduces readers to what can only be described as a dystopian utopia. The Island of Prospera seems like paradise: protected from the ravages of the rest of the world, its inhabitants live in luxury and have time to pursue creative hobbies. They are able to do this thanks to the service of an underclass of workers who live on an adjoining island known as the Annex. Prosperans do not die, rather they go to a third island called the Nursery where they are reborn as sixteen year olds and sent back to Prospera and adopted to an existing couple. For protagonist Proctor Bennett, whose job it is to take people who are at the end of their life to the ferry to the Nursery (hence the title of Ferryman), things are seemingly idyllic. But strange dreams (Prosperans do not dream as a rule), and a traumatic event involving his ageing (adoptive) father lift the veil for Proctor and cause him to start asking questions about his life and his world. Meanwhile, in the Annex, a revolution is slowly brewing.
To say any more about The Ferryman would be to spoil one of its many twists and surprises. Suffice to say that, unlike a JJ Abrams-style puzzlebox, Cronin is in total control. He knows exactly what is behind every strange aspect and occurrence in his world. If anything, the book’s main failing is the extensive amount of exposition required in the back half to explain it all. While it is handled as well as it can be, there is sometimes just too much lore and backstory to explain in a way which flows as well as the intriguing setup. But the explanations are over in time to build to a page-turning but also heartbreaking conclusion.
There are many influences on the DNA of The Ferryman, some of which are fairly clear. There is a little bit of The Truman Show, more than a little bit of The Matrix, and some others that would be even more spoilery to mention. But Cronin only builds on these, using some of their ideas and iconography as touchstones to create and deliver his own unique vision. And that vision is likely to grab readers and not let them go until they have discovered the lengthy but ultimately satisfying answers.