I should not read books about people who lose their children. It upsets me too much. Which is probably why the overwhelming emotion I felt after reading Jason Mott’s impressive and intense new novel, The Returned, was sadness, rather than the expected fear. But that’s okay, because the book was far more thought-provoking and rewarding than I had ever expected.
The premise of the novel is fantastic: What would happen if all over the world, the dead just decided not to be dead anymore? What if the people you’d loved and lost and grieved over most suddenly appeared at your door, in the same state as the last time you’d been with them? Would you welcome them home with open arms? Would you question their motives for returning – or even whether or not they were who they said they were? And what would the returned do, without homes and jobs and all the other things that the passage of time would have taken from them?
The novel begins with Harold and Lucille Hargrave facing that question exactly: their only son, lost in a drowning accident some 50 years ago when he was 8-years-old, is returned to their home by a federal agent after “returning” from death somewhere in China. (I have still not figured out the China angle– there wasn’t enough information to tell me whether or not Mott is making some claim about weird, super power science robbing the graves of their inhabitants. So that thread was a total loss for me.) Harold and Lucille immediately take him in, although they disagree about whether or not he is actually their son, or something else altogether. But what they don’t realize at the beginning is the absolute havoc the returning dead will wreak on their small Mississippi community – and the world in general.
At one point, Lucille spars with former friends from her town who have joined the anti-returned movement:
“I just want to know what your demands are, is all. All sit-ins have demands! You have to ask for something when you organize like this.” A soldier bumped into her by accident. He paused to apologize, then she continued on. “You’ve succeeded in disrupting things,“ Lucille said to Fred. “That’s plain. But what’s next? What’s your platform? What are you standing for?”
Fred’s eyes went full of light. He sat erect in his chair and inhaled a deep, dramatic breath. The other men followed his lead and sat straight as tombstones. “We stand for the living,” Fred said in a flat, even voice.
It was the slogan of the True Living Movement – those fools that Lucille and Harold had watched on television that day so long ago. The ones who’d gone from promises of race wars to full-on racial integration since the Returned. And now there was Fred quoting them.
Without a doubt, Lucille thought, nut jobbery was afoot. p. 179
Mott’s novel touches so many chords – about jealousy, about difference, about loss and forgiveness. But to my mind, it perfectly crystallizes the tragic circumstances faced by refugees around the globe. In fact, it is a meditation on the human ability to live far beyond what endurance should allow – and the aftermath of living outside the normal order of things. Left without their past lives, these refugees appear in a place that seems hospitable at first, is empathetic and even caring in the abstract – but becomes dangerous when the newcomers begin to impact and change the inhabitant’s previously ordered world. This book about returning dead, which I originally thought of as a creepy tale, really made me think about the plight of the Tamils and the Syrians and all the other groups of people who are forced from where they belong, and then must hope for the best from the places they wander into. How difficult it is to remake a life?
This book was very powerful, but I wouldn’t really call it scary, which was what I expected from the description. Still, the returning dead seem to make it a natural for the R.I.P. VIII Challenge – there’s plenty of suspense. And maybe others will see it as more “perilous” than I did. If the main story line hadn’t revolved around a lost child, it might have been a different story for me as well. I read this book as part of a TLC Book Tour, and received a free copy of the book in return for my honest opinion, which is what you’ve got here. Thanks as always to Lisa for including me on the tour. For other opinions on this title, check the links here.