The Ferryman: A Novel

Image of The Ferryman: A Novel
Release Date: 
May 2, 2023
Ballantine Books
Reviewed by: 

“Cronin . . . is a writer whose intimate characterization and effortless prose often transcend his subject matter.”

For three-quarters of its length, The Ferryman tells a unique and mysterious tale in which a small population inhabits an island that has been utterly cut off from the rest of the world. Like Hugh Howey’s Wool series (and the Apple TV+ series Silo based on it), The Ferryman depicts an insular society that does not remember its origins. Petty politics rule over a world full of mysteries that echo, in small scale, the mysteries of all human life: Why are we here? Where did we come from? What lies beyond what we can see?

Unfortunately, unlike Wool, The Ferryman’s mysteries are ultimately revealed to be a well-trodden science fiction trope, disappointing after the long setup. The constructs that formed the foundation of the tale are explained through questionable science and psychology. Worse, the carefully built tensions and societal structures poised on the brink of catastrophe are wrapped up too sweetly, too easily, lulled to sleep with sentimental prose rather than actually solved.

Even so, Cronin’s exquisite writing mostly exonerates the book’s lackluster conclusion. His characters, both small and large, feel real and lived-in: complex personalities that authentically wear the experiences of their lives, whether they are exchanging gunfire in a high-speed car chase or contemplating the state of their marriage over a glass of wine.

Evocative descriptions characterize in a breath (“The woman was like cake frosting on a bar of iron”), and the book is seasoned with shrewd observations about life that lend it moral depth (“She had heard something once . . . that loss was love’s accounting, its unit of measure, as a foot was made of inches, a yard was made of feet”). Cronin’s writing is reminiscent of Stephen King’s: not because The Ferryman is supernatural horror (it isn’t), but because Cronin, like King, is a writer whose intimate characterization and effortless prose often transcend his subject matter.

The Ferryman is about many things, but ultimately it is about love and loss. The novel is crammed with parent-child relationships of many types: natural and adopted, through genetic or simply emotional ties, the parental relationship of a much older brother or a mentor or a friend or even a leader of a faction of rebels. The early pages paint the first meeting of a woman and her adopted son, then slide quickly to the moment she realizes she has lost him.

Even the description of the upper and lower classes of this world is painted in terms of parents and children. The upper classes always adopt teenagers who come into existence through mysterious means. This is contrasted with the lower class, who are “born in the old-fashioned way, shot into existence as a wet, squealing nugget,” and who can “bear children of one’s own and watch them stand, then walk, then grow into their lives” and for whom “children can precede their parents to the grave.”

Every one of the parent-child relationships in the book is ultimately lost, whether by the death of the parent, the death of the child, abandonment, separation, or simply because the child grows up. One of the last observations of the book is this:

“To watch his daughter, whom, not long ago, he held in the palm of a single hand, step into the flow of life? It’s all very complex, and it seems to him that within this complexity lies the true essence of loving a child: a joy so intense that it can feel like sadness.”

The emotional weight of enduring the loss of a parent or child weaves through every chapter of this novel, sometimes bittersweet, sometimes devastating. Every character feels like someone the reader has known or has been, their lives starkly real despite the unreality of their world. The microcosm of the island poignantly parallels the experience of all humans on this planet, living and losing and wondering what it all means. Despite the anticlimax of the big reveal, this novel is well worth it for the journey.