Book Review: The Returned by Jason Mott
The Returned is a brand-new release by a first-time author — and fortunately for the author, it’s gotten a tremendous amount of advance buzz, perhaps in large part because it’s already been snatched up by Brad Pitt’s production company and is scheduled to debut in 2014 as a TV series (with the title Resurrection – see here for more information on the TV show).
Not a bad beginning! But is it worth the hype?
In The Returned, dead people start showing up all around the globe — not as zombies or creatures out of horror stories, but simply picking up where they left off at the time of their death. They come back, whole and healthy, and if they remember where they’ve been or know why they’re back, they’re not saying.
The Returned, as the formerly deceased are known, reappear suddenly and in random locations. In the central storyline, 8-year-old Jacob appears one day by a river in a small fishing village in China, and it is up to the Bureau — an international agency hastily funded to manage the Returned — to get Jacob back where he belongs. Where Jacob belongs is in the tiny, isolated Southern town of Arcadia with his parents Harold and Lucille, now in their 70s… who never really recovered from their son’s tragic death fifty years earlier.
What plays out in microcosm in Arcadia is happening everywhere. More and more Returned keep appearing, and what people first viewed as miraculous has now started making them nervous. Just how many are there? Will it ever stop? Where are we going to put them all? Eventually, the Bureau stops focusing on reunions and soon shifts its mission to one of containment. Before long, Returned are living in increasingly squalid camps behind wire fences and with soldiers on patrol — but as it quickly becomes apparent, no camps can ever be big enough for the never-ending flood of Returned.
In some ways, The Returned tells two very different stories. On the one hand, it’s an exploration of love, parenting, and family. We meet Harold and Lucille as two elderly, somewhat ornery but likeable folks, getting on with their lives, with their aches and pains, bickering and scolding as only a long-married couple can. As Jacob reenters their lives, they confront their losses over time, what it meant for them to lose their child, and how their lives might have been different if they’d had Jacob all along. They also must adjust to being parents of an eight-year-old at a time when they might more naturally be grandparents — and confront the inevitable question facing all families of Returned: Is this person really their son? Is he really a person? What does it mean to have him back? And is he back for good?
The chapters focusing on this fractured and then reunited family are touching in their small details — Lucille’s need to feed Jacob and check up on him whenever he’s out of arm’s reach, Harold’s resumption of the ordinary daily rituals that used to be a part of the father-son relationship, like swimming in the river and teaching him knock-knock jokes. By extension, we get to know more of the townspeople and see how the phenomenon of the Returned impacts all of them, for good or for bad, in some cases bringing up memories of horrible events, for others a longing for a lost loved one who hasn’t Returned.
On the other hand, as the book approaches its climax, the tone shifts into something a bit more action-oriented, focusing on the cramped quarters of the camp that has taken over the entire town and the enraged townsfolk who want to get rid of the Returned by any means possible. It’s a powder keg that is bound to explode, and the inevitable results are violent and sad. For me, these parts of the book reminded me in various ways of Under the Dome by Stephen King, Haters by David Moody, and The Leftovers by Tom Perrotta — and certainly , shades of Torchwood: Miracle Day (for those who appreciate the geeky side of TV). None are a perfect comparison, but bits and pieces and certain themes definitely brought these other books to mind.
Overall, I liked The Returned quite a bit, although the climax and resolution didn’t entirely work for me. The parts of the book that deal with the emotional impact of the return of lost loved ones were evocative and emotional, and I truly enjoyed the lovely little moments at play as tentative new bonds are explored between family members separated by death decades earlier. The dilemmas the characters face seem realistic for people facing impossible situations and choices, and it’s easy for the reader to sympathize with their struggles and feel invested in their lives. Yet once the narrative becomes centered on the violent outcomes of the treatment of the Returned, the book in some ways became more ordinary for me. As an action story, it isn’t much that we haven’t seen before, in one shape or another. It’s the more personal moments that set this book apart and make The Returned such an interesting read — and I only wish that the focus had remained more on the relationships rather than moving into (dare I say it?) practically a dystopian set-piece by the end.
Title: The Returned
Author: Jason Mott
Publisher: Harlequin MIRA
Publication date: 2013
Source: Review copy courtesy of Harlequin MIRA via NetGalley