Review: Justin Cronin’s The Ferryman Casts Magic as It Opens a Speculative Heart

The cover of The Ferryman by Justin Cronin depicts a sail boat on calm seas with an approaching storm.
Cover image by David Baileys, Design by Scott Biel

When I started reading The Ferryman, the latest novel by Justin Cronin, I had a sense that I pretty much knew what I was in for. I was wrong.

To use a rollercoaster metaphor (because I think cliches should be played with, not dispensed), sometimes a book offers a clear day and you can see all of the ascents and dives, twists and turns, before that first ratcheting climb even begins. Sometimes the fog rolls in off the bay and you can’t see a damned thing, so you just hold on as you’re taken up and then dropped into a gray void. The Ferryman is a bit like riding a rollercoaster inside of a mirror maze. You think you see what’s coming, but what you actually see is a reflection of yourself, eyes and mouth agape, an embarrassing squeal ringing off your tongue.

Rollercoaster aside, The Ferryman isn’t a thriller. It’s not a plot-driven story seeking to play with your expectations for the next twist. Don’t get me wrong. This book will thrill you. Even when you’re reading it and you think, maybe this is a thriller, that’s the mirror again. It’s almost as if Cronin is begging you to ask yourself why you’re trying to pin this book down at all, and it challenges you conceptually in the most extreme ends of the creative spectrum. So, let’s shed the labels. It’s a story about intimate, life-affirming love shared between partners, family, or friends. It’s a story about cosmic philosophies regarding our species and its fundamental state of being. And it’s a story about everything in between.

The Ferryman is a book of wonder, mystery, heartache, and existence. It’s a beautiful book, and it’s a terrifying book. It’s a book that will immerse you in calm waters, and it’s a book that will exhilarate you with violent storm surges.

If nothing else, The Ferryman is a book with a concept that, if you’d told me everything about it—spoiled it utterly—I would have said a book like that can’t work. And yet it does, and that fact, above every nit-picky reservation or petty grievance a reader might have, elevates The Ferryman to something like a literary magic trick.

I’ve followed Justin Cronin’s career with interest. A graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop, he won the NEA in 2004 and a PEN/Hemingway Award for his first novel, Mary and O’Neil, and his second novel, The Summer Guest, received critical praise for its deeply human introspection and its wonderful prose. (I also loved it.) Then, Cronin wrote the post-apocalyptic horror novel, The Passage, and the literary world did a record-scratching double take. For years, he’s answered questions about what drew him to “genre fiction” and why an Iowa grad with two successful “literary” novels under his belt wrote an epic trilogy about a world-ending viral infection, and all of his answers seemed to reduce to a simple statement: he wanted to.

I think Justin Cronin knows what is expected of him, which makes it all the more satisfying for aspiring writers to see him do what he wants.

My impression of him is that he’s earnest and writing outside the bounds of genre. He’s writing to character and concept and allegory and meaning. He’s a literary artist. The Ferryman demonstrates that more than any of his previous work.

If you know me, it might make some sense of why what Justin Cronin is doing resonates with me. I’ve always wanted to write outside the bounds of genre, and I’ve always wanted to twist realities for a purpose and for the art of it. Here Justin Cronin is, doing precisely that.

I would have told you it couldn’t be done, but Cronin does it.

Not only do I think The Ferryman reflects the reader as they read it. I think it reflects Cronin as the writer. The story knows what you expect of it, but it does what it wants. That awareness and courage to follow the path presented as it unfolds after every word, every paragraph, every page is vital.

As both a writer and a reader, I appreciate Justin Cronin’s willingness to take risks and try new things, but every time I find one of these new maneuvers, something remarkable happens in his hands. It doesn’t feel like an experiment or a risk. It feels organic, the way it was always meant to be. Cronin doesn’t nudge his stories in the directions he wants them to take. He embraces them for that which they want to be.

It’s apparent in the meandering pulse of The Summer Guest, which emulates the sensations of taking a therapeutic holiday at a mountain lake. It’s present all over his apocalyptic horror trilogy, The Passage, which jumps across time and space and even presents entire novels worth of narrative shifting, retrospectives that don’t so much as flash back as they gaze long and unflinchingly into the past.

The Ferryman is a bit of a cross between those two visions, conceptually speaking. No, there isn’t a breach at a secret lab that releases a world-ending viral pandemic near a remote summer resort. Rather, The Ferryman sees Cronin return to a setting and pace that is comforting and relaxing while simultaneously utilizing a speculative reality and structure to keep us facing the uncanny and disquieting. 

The method is effective. The story carries us forward as willing passengers, relaxing in our own home, reclined in our favorite chair or sprawled in our bed, into a world that is idyllic and fantastical, but all the while, we feel something isn’t right. We’re eager when we get to pull on the threads of conspiracy, classism, authoritarianism, and dystopia, and we stand in awe as the whole tapestry unravels.

Though The Ferryman is rife with mystery, intrigue, and speculative elements, it rests on a foundation of beauty, of the world coming alive. It all has narrative purpose, but you’re not exactly sure where it’s going (and I think even the most jaded of readers will be pleasantly surprised with The Ferryman), and then SNAP! The story hits you with something that makes you want to start it over because so many of the book’s peculiarities suddenly make sense on a deeply human and emotional level.

I hesitate to call what Cronin does twisting the plot because of everything that’s going on with the framework of this novel. That, and the idea of a plot twist, in my mind, suggests a level of economy that might cheapen its beauty. It is revelation, for us and the characters, a lifting of a veil, and it’s something that twists the very reality the story is written in. I think that is the heart of good speculative fiction: the writer plays with our concept of reality for the purpose of deriving meaning. The world is as much a character as any protagonist or antagonist. Its identity and altered state teaches us about our own reality.

And make no mistake, when all of the threads are unraveled and the tapestry comes down, what we find is inarguably real.

As a final bit of praise, reading Cronin’s prose grants the feeling of sailing a boat on calm seas. In simple terms, whether Cronin is writing about running a summer vacation spot, the end of the world, or an uncanny island society, it’s clear he loves his writing, every word of it. When a writer loves their writing the way Cronin does, it makes the simple act of reading a joy. This is no emergent development, though. Cronin has been praised for his prose since his first novel, Mary and O’Neil, and it’s satisfying to see he hasn’t lost a step here.

What began as a review of Justin Cronin’s new novel has become something more: another reflection. This post goes beyond a critical and analytical essay about The Ferryman. I found myself thinking and writing about Cronin’s influence and approaches to storytelling, notes on fiction craft, a personal narrative. Maybe this is an open fan letter.

As I wrote this blog post, I felt the compulsion to nudge it and mold it into that which I thought it was supposed to be: a simple, straight-forward review. However, I embraced what it wanted to become.

Maybe I have Justin Cronin to thank for that.

I recommend The Ferryman for any reader who likes to have their expectations challenged while devouring a deliciously satisfying story set in a wondrous, uncanny world, a story written from the first word to the last to move your humanity and take your consciousness and self-awareness to new realms.