The Returned: Worthy of a recommendation, but not a fervent one

fantasy and science fiction book reviewsThe Returned by Jason MottThe Returned by Jason Mott

The Returned, by Jason Mott, is a solid enough novel, capably told for the most part, but which nonetheless left me feeling unsatisfied in that it seemed like it just didn’t quite meet up with its full potential. The premise is pretty simple to sum up: one day the dead start returning, seemingly wholly alive (this is not a zombie novel). While this obviously will have major societal and global ramifications, The Returned is almost exclusively focused on the much more personal impact this mystifying event has on a small town and a handful of people. Its major focus, in fact, is on a single family: Harold and Lucille and their son Jacob, whom they lost years ago at the age of eight. Now he has returned, the same age, though his parents are decades older. In between the chapters relating to events in the town, we get glimpses at other Returned elsewhere in the world.

The family dynamic, and especially Harold’s responses, is the core of the book, and its strength. Harold is mostly likable, and always engaging (even and sometimes especially when, he is not likable), and his reaction to his son’s return was suitably and realistically complex all the way through to the end. In many ways he’s the gruff old guy we’ve seen a million times, but Mott really captures a winning voice with him. And his relationship with the government agent is wonderfully played when it’s the two of them (unfortunately, the agent is less well-formed on his own).

Harold’s wife, Lucille, though, is a less successful creation. I found her overall less interesting and when she did become more interesting toward the end, it felt somewhat forced and out of character. I felt she was a real opportunity missed. The same is true for the preacher and his storyline. The ramifications of the dead returning on one’s faith, especially for one who is a preacher, seems ripe for wrenching exploration, but the preacher arrived already somewhat pallid in his faith and so his journey toward a possible loss of faith is too short and too straight — like taking the interstate rather than the backroads. And his own Returned storyline, his personal connection to the no-longer-dead, was dragged out too long and then turned just a little disturbing (I won’t say more so as not to spoil).

The interchapters work well for the most part, though they vary in impact. They do serve to broaden the story, but I still wanted an even larger sense of context. The interchapters, though they show us other characters and other places, still remain mostly narrowly focused on individuals. And while we get snippets of what is happening in the larger world, and can deduce more, it wasn’t quite enough for me — I wanted more logistics, more sense of social impact, though I’ll happily accept that this is not so much a flaw as my wishing for a different sort of book. Though one of the few times we are given a sense of world events— riots over a particular Returned — I found the idea a bit hard to swallow.

Along with the character and plot issues surrounding Lucille and the preacher, there are a few other more minor problems. Much is made of how the living always recognize the Returned, but it is left maddeningly vague as to just how this is. Some events happen a bit too easily or quickly, and again, there are issues of plausibility near the end which I won’t go into so as to avoid spoilers.

As I said, the writing is capable: The story held my attention most of the way, though it lagged in a few places, and the prose was consistently smooth and at times rose to moving heights. Mott appears to be a good writer and he has a great premise, but somehow it always felt as the premise was just eluding the writing. It wouldn’t surprise me if this is picked up for a film and I’d be curious to see what a good scriptwriter could do with it. It wouldn’t take much, I think, to really grab this premise and wrestle it to the ground. Mott does a decent job with it, making The Returned worthy of a recommendation, but I wish that recommendation were more fervent.

Release date: August 27, 2013. “Jacob was time out of sync, time more perfect than it had been. He was life the way it was supposed to be all those years ago. That’s what all the Returned were.” Harold and Lucille Hargrave’s lives have been both joyful and sorrowful in the decades since their only son, Jacob, died tragically at his eighth birthday party in 1966. In their old age they’ve settled comfortably into life without him, their wounds tempered through the grace of time…. Until one day Jacob mysteriously appears on their doorstep — flesh and blood, their sweet, precocious child, still eight years old. All over the world people’s loved ones are returning from beyond. No one knows how or why this is happening, whether it’s a miracle or a sign of the end. Not even Harold and Lucille can agree on whether the boy is real or a wondrous imitation, but one thing they know for sure: he’s their son. As chaos erupts around the globe, the newly reunited Hargrave family finds itself at the center of a community on the brink of collapse, forced to navigate a mysterious new reality and a conflict that threatens to unravel the very meaning of what it is to be human. With spare, elegant prose and searing emotional depth, award-winning poet Jason Mott explores timeless questions of faith and morality, love and responsibility. A spellbinding and stunning debut, The Returned is an unforgettable story that marks the arrival of an important new voice in contemporary fiction.

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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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