Imagine what it would be like if the dead returned. Not as monstrous empty zombies, but as the real live people they were before. This is where poet Jason Mott takes us in his debut novel The Returned.
At first glance, this premise kind of blew me away for its invention. Before even cracking it open I put myself in this dream world where we get back the ones we’ve lost. Even before starting the story, there was an eeriness to this “What if”. What’s the catch, you immediately wonder. Because it sounds too good to be true. Then you widen the perspective beyond your immediate relatives to neighbors and strangers and everyone who came before, and you begin to see where there could be some oddly bureaucratic and logistical problems.
It’s happening all over the world, the dead are returning in small numbers. There’s no sense to why some return and others don’t, or why they return not where they died or lived, but sometimes on the other side of the world. People watch the stories on the news with a shiver, certain The Returned are unnatural and glad they haven’t gotten the life-changing knock on their door. Until they do.
Harold and Lucille Hargrave are a geriatric couple who carried on as well as expected after their eight year old son, Jacob, drowned in 1966. Like everyone else, they’re watching the news and shaking their heads when the knock comes. I had chills at this early point in the story. This is extremely well written and completely unpredictable, but like any great book you have to know what happens.
It’s rare to find a contemporary book with elderly main characters, and that was something I really appreciated. The Hargrave’s age gave them a surprisingly forceful perspective. No, they no longer had the natural energy to keep up with an eight year old boy, but this second chance makes them realize how much fight they still have in them. Because not everyone wants them. As their numbers increase beyond what the living are willing to make room for, many Returned find there’s no longer a place for them in this world. To make matters worse, somehow the living can easily distinguish between the Returned and “the true living”, making them easy targets.
If there’s one thing America will always lead the world in … it’s assholes with guns.
Unwilling or unable to speak about their time between dying and coming back, the story’s focus is preoccupied with how people respond to the escalating situation, and the logistical details. It gets bleak fast.
I recommend this book with a few footnotes. Don’t get too excited about the fantastic potential of this premise, because that’s not where you’re going. Imagine you’re on a free trip to Orlando for some academic conference instead of Disney World. Also, this isn’t scary or chilling. It never claimed to be, but that’s exactly what I wanted from it, like expecting dessert when a bowl of brussels sprouts arrives – roasted and tasty, but still brussels sprouts.
Read this when you’re looking for something reflective, a little somber and written with the telltale precision of a poet.
Book’d Out has a review complete with the trailer.