Jason Mott's debut novel, The Returned, is speculative fiction that asks the question: "What if the dead came back to life?" Taking place in the present, the book revolves around a miraculous, ongoing occurrence: people who have died are suddenly re-appearing around the world, coming back exactly as they were just before they perished. There seems to be no logic as to which of the deceased rematerialize; some of the Returned (as they're referred to by those who haven't died) have been gone a few years, others many decades; some had families and were loved, others no longer have family or friends to go back to.
The concept is fascinating and the possibilities for development are enormous. Mott displays a keen knowledge of human behavior and deftly illustrates the various ways individuals, groups and governments would likely react in the face of this new reality. I found some of the debates and outcomes predictable (for example the stigmatization of those who are different from "normal people"), but other consequences only occurred to me after the author described what he thought would likely result from an event that contradicts all human history and understanding.
At the core of the novel are Lucille and Harold Hargrave, whose son Jacob drowned decades ago at the age of eight. After Jacob's death, the couple had remained childless and moved on with their lives, so find themselves quite conflicted by the sudden presence of this being more than four decades later, unable to decide if he's a gift from God or a demon in disguise or even truly their son. Mott portrays the Hargraves with warmth, and perhaps the best reason to read the book is to get to know these marvelous characters. It comes across abundantly clear in the narrative that they're god-fearing, North Carolina senior citizens, but the author has resisted the urge to make them stereotypical or caricatures of the southern-Christian variety. They're imbued with life and humor, their bantering very reminiscent of how two people who've been together for decades communicate sometimes seeming irascible but with love always apparent just below the surface. Other characters populate the book including a middle-aged pastor whose high school sweetheart has returned and wants to see him, and a long-time resident who became bitter after the death of his wife and now has to deal with the fact that she hasn't returned. While not as well drawn, these individuals do provide another perspective on life in their small town once the effects of the phenomenon begin to compound.
Also powerful are the vignettes the author includes that give glimpses of what other Returned are experiencing. Readers for example encounter soldiers who were killed in war long ago re-appearing, begging not to be killed again; children coming back whose parents are long dead and who therefore have no place to go; a girl who returns to parents who refuse to accept her; and an elderly mother who had Alzheimer's when she died and is every bit as confused the second time around. These snapshots are quite affecting and expand the scope of the action, providing a broader picture of the consequences of thousands of people returning from the dead, while keeping the action focused on the Hargraves and their experiences.
Interestingly, the author makes no attempt to explain why or how the dead have returned, concentrating instead on the consequences of their reappearance. While some may find this lack of information problematic, I thought highlighting the effects produced by the presence of the Returned (as opposed to trying to explain their presence) strengthened the book, allowing the author to focus on the philosophical debate that must emerge in the face of so unnatural an event.
I did enjoy the novel but there were aspects of it that I thought could have been stronger. As mentioned previously, most of the minor characters were rather one-dimensional and undeveloped; the main characters were so well drawn, though, that I found this a negligible flaw. Larger issues for me were that not all the elements of the plot worked out logically, and there were too many unanswered questions about the Returned in general. For example, people were reanimated in the exact state of health that they were in when they died, like the woman who expired with Alzheimer's, so it only follows that if someone died of an illness they'd still have that illness when they came back. So do they die again immediately of that same illness, or somewhat later, and if so, how much later and why the delay? Also, do those who return come back yet again, after their second death? Such conundrums are left unanswered, but "enquiring minds want to know," as the saying goes. I also felt the book's scope was overly limited. There is almost no mention of how other countries reacted to the Returned, and no reference at all to faiths other than Christianity. I found myself disappointed by this lack of diverse viewpoint, although others may not find it as much of a distraction as I did. And finally, while I appreciate that the author resisted the temptation to turn the book into a page-turning action/adventure zombie-apocalypse kind of novel, it's a little too quiet, with the center sections simultaneously dragging and feeling too condensed.
The Returned's premise provides much food for thought, and it's a book that most readers will find themselves thinking about long after the last page is turned. That, combined with Mott's ability to bring his characters alive, makes this one well worth the reader's time. The book is a promising debut, which leaves me eager to read future works by this author.
The Returned is the basis for the television show Resurrection, starring Omar Epps.
This review was originally published in September 2013, and has been updated for the March 2014 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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