Published: 1st September 2013 by Harlequin
Format: Paperback, 340 pages
Genres: Contemporary, Fantasy
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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.
I’m going to begin my review with an announcement, a caveat, a warning. The Returned isn’t a zombie book. The Returned isn’t even about what happens when one dies, nor is it particularly interested in why the dead are Returning to life. It is a literary novel looking into the deepest, darkest corners of human nature, and as such, is far more concerned with the living than it ever is with the Returned.
The haunting premise of The Returned pulled me in the moment I first heard about it at a Harlequin event. Gorgeously written and realised, this book explores humanity in a way that I’ve never seen before: it explores what happens when the one certainty in life, death, suddenly becomes a lot less certain. How would you, as an individual, deal with it? How would your community, your country, the whole world, deal with the Returned?
Jason Mott tackles the issue on a variety of levels: firstly with Harold and Lucille, and then with their small-town community of Arcadia, and finally with the whole of America and the rest of the world. The same confusion, desperation and fear are examined at these different levels, and one of the most interesting things the author proposes is that, while people are nice on an individual-by-individual basic, there is some number, some critical mass, after which we group together and discriminate against what’s different.
I love how the author examines this through Arcadia. This is one of those towns where everyone says sir and ma’am, where there’s one major road and two traffic lights, where the same families have lived for generations, where there are no secrets. When the Returned first appear, the people predictably turn to their pastor for guidance and support, and they stay calm because he preaches acceptance and patience. But the longer they go without answers, the more agitated the townspeople become, and the Return of the Wilsons, a family who was murdered in the past, unearths deep prejudices, fears and secrets and threatens to tear the community apart.
Mott uses a cast of relatable, dimensional characters to tell this story, including a FBI agent stationed in Arcadia and other inhabitants of the small town. Peppered throughout are short glimpses of what’s going on in other areas of the country and other parts of the world. Taken together with the emotional story of the newly reunited Hargrave family, they paint a picture of a world struggling to accept the new reality it finds itself in.
I love the story-telling style that the author has chosen, it’s vivid and lyrical and enthralled me easily. The book is carefully and simply told, and one gets the feeling that every word, every sentence, is carefully measured and thought out. I think The Returned is exceptionally well told – it’s a literary novel, and aside from the premise, there’s not an iota of speculative fiction within it, which I really enjoyed because it made me think very hard about the things I’ve taken for granted for my whole life.
A beautifully told, richly imagined novel, The Returned isn’t the book to turn to if you’re looking for an apocalypse, for a fight for survival against zombies in horrendous conditions, for guns and blood and hunger and desperation. However if you’re interested in a deep but gentle exposition that looks into human nature, with the most interesting premise I have ever had the pleasure to read about, then The Returned is perfect for you!