Every bookworm has go-to recommendations, novels to be vouched for in any situation, with any kind of reading audience. For the past decade, my personal list has featured Justin Cronin’s The Passage – I’ve plugged it so often, I should be given royalties. A post-apocalyptic vampire thriller that both subverts and leverages sci-fi tropes, The Passage became a best-selling trilogy, a network television show, and a cash cow allowing Cronin a few years’ respite.
This month he’s back with The Ferryman, a genre-melding dystopia of the mid-doorstop weight class. But Cronin’s many pages do not derive from verbosity. Like his smash vampire hits, this 540-page hardback is a breeze of a read, its plot churning exactly often enough to keep the vellum flipping, its sense of mystery proliferating until it disrupts earthly chores.
This mystery originates in a familiar sci-fi trope: the utopian island. The Ferryman takes place on Prospera, the largest of a three-piece archipelago “in splendid isolation, hidden from the world” after some sort of species-altering extinction event. There are no children on Prospera. There’s no death. Residents play tennis, sail the coastline, and enjoy glamorous multi-course meals, living well into their hundreds before their minds are wiped and swapped out for more youthful vessels. It sounds ideal, but this is Cronin we’re talking about. Something fishy is afoot.
When I read early synopses of this long-awaited novel, I couldn’t help but think of all the island/ageless-utopia/memory-erasure plots we’ve been burdened with over the years. The Island, the movie, and Island, the book. The Giver. On Such a Full Sea. That one Black Mirror episode. I could go on, but suffice to say, The Ferryman bends our expectations and uses source material cannily.
The book’s titular ferryman is Proctor Bennet, a mostly happy man with a mostly happy wife whose job involves carting elderly residents to the nominal end of their memory. All parallels to Greek mythology end here; a wide-shouldered collegiate swimmer, Proctor is undoubtedly more handsome than Charon.
When Proctor gets the call to admit his estranged father to “retirement,” he receives an unexpected message and becomes the target of an intricate setup by the security state. Or, hang on, who’s framing who? How’d so many people wind up on this island, anyway? Oh yeah, and where are the freaking kids?
All is explained in good time. The Ferryman won’t overtake The Passage on my recommendation list, but it proves that Cronin hasn’t lost his step. Like his previous work, this novel has just enough – but not too much – of everything. Sex, action, intrigue, soapiness. The final sequence feels a tad uneven, but maybe I was simply disappointed that this book, like all his others, eventually had to end.