Avid book readers in the UK would be hard-pressed to name the YA book by Claire McFall, a young Scots author, published in 2013. It has sold approximately 10,000 copies in Scotland, whereas in China over a million copies have been sold so far, pushing it into the top 3 on the bestsellers list here.
The book is ‘Ferryman‘, a romantic para-normal tale of a teenager who (just) survives an horrendous rail accident, and the other worldly Ferryman – think Charon and the river Styx – who has been sent to take her across the ‘wasteland’ to the afterlife. The strap line on the UK paperback edition reads “Is there Love after Death”….cue the music.
When I became aware of how many Chinese readers were buying Ferryman I thought I should read it – it is the first British novel to really hit the big time in China since the advent of J.K.Rowling’s Harry Potter series. So I downloaded it to my Kindle and got stuck in.
I do not want to say any more about the tale as it might spoil it for future readers. Suffice to say, this is not a book I would normally pick up, let-alone read, and I can’t in all honesty say it was my cup of tea. Having said that, it is beautifully written and Claire McFall obviously understands teenage girls (IRL* she is a teacher at a Scottish secondary school), and she not mawkish or overly sentimental in writing about death, and the deep intensity of teenage love. She has written a follow-up book: ‘Trespassers‘, and is hard at work on a third book, turning it into a trilogy – I hope they prove just as successful here in China.
Why, I asked myself, has this book had such an appeal to Chinese readers? After thinking long and hard, and doing some research I have come to the conclusion that in Chinese literature tales featuring wandering ghosts, hungry ghosts, fox women, demons, lost souls etc are commonplace. Additionally, in ancient China there was a period when the Chinese conception of the afterlife was based on a combination of Chinese folk religions, Taoism and Mahayana Buddhism.
At the moment of death, it was believed that one’s spirit is taken by messengers to the God of Walls and Moats, Chenghuang Shen who conducts a kind of preliminary hearing. Those found virtuous may go directly to one of the Buddhist paradises, to the dwelling place of the Taoist immortals, or the tenth court of hell for immediate rebirth.
To get to the God of Walls & Moats it was believed that the souls of the dead had to cross a river or desolate land to transit from mortal life to an after-world. Nowadays such a belief is not so common, but the idea still has a romantic pull… and if one crosses over the wasteland, is it ever possible to cross back to the land of the living? So Mc Fall’s novel seems to fit well within the ancient Chinese belief system.
The book is also very popular in Japan and Korea, I am told – both of which have similar attitudes to life after death. There were moments, when reading it, that I could imagine it being re-written as Japanese manga, in which format I am sure it would be another huge success.
Because of the immense popularity of ‘Ferryman‘ here in China, Hollywood has come knocking on McFall’s door, film rights have been sold and I suspect this Scottish lass will not be working in the Scottish Education system for much longer!
Here should say that I am really turned off by books which publishers market as ‘YA’ – I know that is prejudice on my part, but this whole YA category bothers me. What IS a YA in the first place? a 15 year old? a 21 year old? does it mean a book that a 30+ reader would not relate to? there are many books that appeal to readers in general, and if marketed as YA it may turn older (more mature?) readers off buying/borrowing/reading them.
I am glad that the fact that ‘Ferryman’ becoming a bestseller in China led me to read it. It is good for me to read outside my comfort zone and see what books appeal to other age-groups. Now I am determined to try books designated as YA from time to time, just to shake up my reading habits!
I have also bought two copies of ‘Ferryman’ in Chinese to give as gifts – one for the 20yr old daughter of a dear friend, and the second for my Chinese teacher who is still under 30 and has a romantic disposition! I can’t wait to hear what they make of it.
If you read ‘Ferryman’, I would be fascinated to hear what you think!!
* IRL = In real life