YA Book Review: Ferryman (2013) by Claire McFall
“I exist because you need me.”
When Dylan emerges from the wreckage of a train crash onto a bleak Scottish hillside, she meets a strange boy who seems to be waiting for her. But Tristan is no ordinary teenage boy, and the journey across the desolate, wraith-infested wasteland is no ordinary journey.
Life, death, love – which will Dylan choose?
Thus, reads the back flap of Claire McFall’s debut novel from 2013, Ferryman. The novel arrived to modest fanfare in McFall’s native Great Britain, winning the Scottish children’s book award, but has since garnered a massive following and become a bestseller in – of all places – China. A sequel, Trespassers, was recently published in September 2017, and a third is apparently underway as well. Hollywood has just come a-knockin’ and picked up the rights for film adaptations (in Chinese and English!).
Ferryman is a modern re-imagining of the Greek myth of Charon, the ferryman of Hades who carries souls across the river Styx. In McFall’s Ferryman, Tristan is the jaded, ever-morphing ferryman sent to collect the soul of the awkward, teen-angsty Dylan, who has died in a train wreck on her way from Glasgow to Aberdeen.
Yet, despite the hundreds of thousands of souls he has routinely escorted in his never-ending netherworld existence, Tristan finds his routine challenged by the curious, compassionate and rather proactively pragmatic Dylan. Is this love? Can a ferryman fall in love with his charge? And then what? What future can such a love have when souls must move on to the next world and the ferryman is forever trapped in the in-between, in the wasteland between life and death, always ferrying yet another soul?
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First Love in the Wasteland
Ferryman takes place – most of it anyhow – in the wasteland, this liminal realm between life and death. Dylan must journey with her ferryman across the wasteland to the shimmering divide that will take her beyond to the next world/life/heaven/Great Unknown, whatever it may be. The journey is not without its perils, though. The wasteland is shaped by the soul itself, so it is Dylan who has given the wasteland shape and form and substance. Each wasteland appears different to each soul. And the moods of the souls affect the weather of the wasteland. Fears and sorrows and longings can whip up winds and storms and lightning strikes, just as joys can bring forth the sun. Yet, whatever the form or the weather, whether windy Scottish Highlands or rainy city streets, the wasteland is always home to wraiths, soul-sucking demons out to lead souls astray and destroy them.
There are safe houses along the route, and it is imperative that souls and their ferrymen make it to safety before night falls and the wraiths swarm with a vengeance. The wraiths have a particular love of pure souls, innocent souls, young souls. Dylan fits their taste. Tristan has lost souls before and that haunts him, but he has promised Dylan that they will never get her. But is it a promise he can keep? The wasteland is ultimately unsafe for souls. It is not a place for tarrying. It is a place to get through as quick as possible to get to the other side and its promised eternal peace.
Yet, the wasteland is the ferryman’s realm. This is Tristan’s place. Dylan cannot remain – it is a danger to her very soul to be in the wasteland. Her soul can die here. She can simply cease to be. She must go on. But as she and Tristan connect and bond and feel an increasing and extraordinary love for one another, Dylan finds herself plotting how to circumvent the conditions and the parameters of the afterlife. Is there a place somewhere for a soul and a ferryman to coexist, to love, in relative peace? But what are the consequences of contravening the eternal conventions of the afterlife? Because surely there are consequences, serious consequences.
Sweet and Enjoyable
Ferryman is an engaging tale, well-versed in the YA love drama. Although there are many conventional YA tropes going on, Ferryman remains fresh. The world-building is rather gripping. I did find myself, though, wondering about the deep connection between Tristan and Dylan. I didn’t always quite feel it or understand it, but then it’s been a long time since I was last 15, so what do I know about young love (-: I did enjoy the lack of the love triangle drama, as well as the lack of mind games. It is a rather straight-up, honest and sweet love happening here, which I found decidedly refreshing. And when all is said and done, Ferryman is a fun read – enjoyable, quick, entertaining, sweet, solid. There is indeed love after death.
Adaptation Recommendation: This is definitely a novel that could be adapted to the big screen, which is why a major studio has just bought the rights. There’s an epic journey, star-crossed, would-be lovers, love after death. There is a lot of cinematic potential in visualizing the wasteland.
Content Note: Nothing to come after.
“I think this is the beginning of a beautiful
“Happiness in marriage is entirely a
matter of chance.”