Thursday, September 26, 2013

The Returned

Jason Mott’s debut novel The Returned poses a serious moral dilemma, what would you do if your dead loved one came back? Embrace them with open arms, no questions asked? In The Returned, Lucille and Harold Hargrave from Arcadia, North Carolina face such a dilemma. Lucille and Harold are a married couple in their 70s whose life is torn asunder when their eight-year old son Jacob, whom they’d lost back in 1966 when he drowned during his birthday party is returned to them, still the same beautiful and precocious boy of eight. Jacob is not alone, he is one of many. The news is inundated with daily accounts of new Returned, the moniker given to the dead showing up alive in all corners of the globe. They appear at random; the same age as when they passed, but not necessarily where they died, left to search for the loved ones and lives they’d left behind.

When Jacob is returned to Lucille and Harold by bureau agent Martin Bellamy, he gives them an out. It is up to them whether they want to keep Jacob or not. While life had moved on for Lucille and Harold, they had never stopped grieving the loss of their son, so Lucille welcomes the opportunity to, despite her creaking bones and aches of a woman in her 70s, greedily grab with both hands the role of mother which she had treasured and had to give up tragically too early a lifetime ago.

As more and more Returned are found though, panic and fear begins to grow among the population, for what are they to make of these beings? Are they a miracle from God, a poor imitation, a sign of the end of times or something even more sinister? In an effort to control the situation, the government begins collecting and housing the Returned and Arcadia becomes ground zero for the struggle between right and wrong, and the living and Returned.

While I enjoyed this book, I felt there was so much left unexplored and unexplained. Given the book’s premise, there were countless avenues which could’ve been taken to explain the other worldly events taking place. If you go the sci-fi route, it could’ve been aliens; if you go the religious route, it could’ve been a miracle from God. While none of those things are disputed, they are not posited as possible explanations either. Mott follows neither avenue of thought and never explains the what, where, and why of the Returned. We are merely expected to accept at face value that they are here.

Nonetheless, the characters are well defined with enough substance and heart to make you care. Lucille’s love for her child is palpable, as is Harold’s heartfelt and focused determination to believe and erase any doubts in his own mind that would prevent him from loving this child as his own. In addition to the main characters, there are also equally intriguing secondary characters and plotlines, such as the local preacher still pining for his first true love, or the young Returned family which had once been murdered in the once-thought of idyllic town of Arcadia.

Despite the vague plot points, the story is still a compelling read thanks to its focus on the familial storyline. It is the love between mother, father and child and the bonds that bind them together even after death which is the heart of this tale, and what make it a book worth reading.