Thursday, November 14, 2013

Book Review: The Returned

This was a book I had to pick up because the premise was so intriguing. Plus, I really liked the cover art with the scene upside down and then reflected again, right side up, within the words of the title. Cover art can make or break a first impression.

For a first novel, I think Jason Mott did an outstanding job with The Returned. He hit upon an interesting what-if and ran with it. I think the structure of the novel worked well, with individual stories of various "returned" individuals interspersed with a continuous tale of one family's experience. But, somehow, I just wanted more from it. I'm not even sure what that "more" would look like. I don't know how I would have written the story any differently, but at the end of the novel, I felt like there was so much more that could have been, should have been, said. Still, I think the author accomplished his goal of taking the reader into an alternate reality where they could hold their loved ones once more and seek some sort of reconciliation with the losses of the past. Everyone who picks up this book will place themselves into the heart of the story and consider how they would respond should one of their deceased loved ones return.

The story follows an elderly couple, Harold and Lucille, whose eight year old son drowned in 1966. When a government agent, working with the Bureau, shows up on their doorstep with their "returned" eight year old son, they don't quite know what to do with the situation or how to respond to their "son." Is he really their son or just a glorified imitation? Is he a devil or a miracle? Moreover, is the widespread occurrence of more and more returned individuals a blessing or a curse? What would a society do if those who were dead suddenly began showing up again in their pre-deceased forms? This intriguing question permeates the book.

When I mentioned the book's premise to my husband, he immediately responded with, "Sounds like Stephen King's Sometimes They Come Back." Thankfully, this author didn't turn it into a horror story. It was a realistic assessment of what would happen in the world if the dead returned to life again and expected to live alongside the living. How do you pick up with what could have been when you've spent your whole life adjusting to the tragedy that did happen? Moreover, how would the world handle the sudden multiplication of bodies to feed, clothe, and house? Intriguing premise, indeed!

It was also reminiscent of Mitch Albom's One More Day, although in that book the deceased individual comes back for only one more day, while the deceased individuals in Mott's book return for unspecified amounts of time, some lingering longer than others.  Still, they seem to depart again eventually and maybe this is what left me unsettled with the handling of the premise. I guess I wanted every returned individual to accomplish some purpose behind their return.  I wanted to feel there was some magnificent reason for the situation to occur.  The random nature to the selection of "the returned" was unsettling. While questions of faith and morality, love and responsibility were addressed, I still felt like I was left hanging without complete resolution.

In the end, the reader gets a bird's eye view of the son's chance to say good-bye to his mother, something he didn't have when his life was suddenly snuffed out. It is this bit of reconciliation between the dead and the living which provides this novel with value. I can see how the author would anticipate readers being able to insert themselves into this scenario and vicariously accomplish some sort of reconciliation with their dearly departed. So, while I wanted a bit more from the novel than it delivered, I still gleaned a bit of reconciliation and, therefore, feel like it wasn't time wasted.

If my own miscarried baby were to return to me, in this scenario, I would expect to achieve something I wasn't allowed in life ... the chance to know what my baby would have eventually been like (what personality, what looks, what mannerisms, etc.). But, like the characters in this novel, I would feel uncomfortable taking something that was not to be and forcing it into what is. Reconciling the two, what was not and what is, would be impossible. Thankfully, this premise is only that - an interesting premise to consider.

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