Please accept my apologies for my unplanned hiatus. My life outside of Austin CNM got the best of me, but I’m back in action now, and I have recently finished one of the most inventive and lyrical novels I’ve read in a long time.
Death scares us. It’s not quite as terrifying as public speaking, but it’s a part of the unknown that we can’t seem to get around. In just about a month, we will honor the saints in glory and the faithful departed on the Solemnity of All Saints and the Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed (All Souls). Those are two days spent celebrating dead people. And you thought zombie romances were bad. Death represents an end, even if not the end, and that can be frightening.
But what if the dead came back? What if they weren’t zombies or masquerading demons, but simply back from the day they left? What if your beloved dead, artists unappreciated while they lived, and the victims of terrible crimes just turned up somewhere in the world one day, unsure of where they’ve been but sure that they were the same people? What would you do? What would the world do? This premise inspires Jason Mott’s debut novel, The Returned.
We experience this unprecedented return of the dead through the experience of the small town of Arcadia. It’s not always a perfect place, but it comes close. Harold and Lucille Hargrave, a lonely old couple since the untimely death of their only son as a child, are stunned to find little Jacob standing on their doorstep with his government escort. Agent Bellamy, from the government Bureau of the Returned, has brought Jacob back from where he simply appeared in China. Lucille, the more religious of the pair, declares her belief that Jacob is back, and he is real, and she will not hear otherwise. Harold seems more skeptical. Soon, the world takes sides, too. The True Living demand that the Returned be rounded up like animals and quarantined. Others are so glad to have back the ones they lost that they won’t let go. Through it all, questions remain. Are the Returned really back from the dead? Forever? Are they people? What will happen if the dead never stop returning? (Seriously, where do you put everyone who has ever lived?)
The response of the townsfolk (and, revealed at a distance, the world) is the most compelling part of The Returned. Harold and Lucille react in divisive ways. Around the world, people are confused, scared, and turning violent. Agent Bellamy is more than he seems. And the Returned are still a mystery. The style is the second most compelling part: the lyrical language that carries the story forward with just enough detail and just enough of a mellow attitude to cast its spell.
The theology of The Returned is shaky. No one ever speaks of where the Returned have been since they left. There are a number of references to the Bible, and a pastor, but nothing is too heavy-handed. It reminded me of Elsewhere, the very first book I reviewed for Austin CNM. This is no theology textbook, but it will make you think twice about whether you really wish death was not the end.
Many thanks to Harlequin MIRA for providing a free copy of The Returned for me to review. I received no other compensation in exchange for my review.
Up next: Francis of Assisi: A New Biography, by Augustine Thompson, O.P.