Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Book Review: THE RETURNED

Title: The Returned
Author: Jason Mott
Publisher: Harlequin MIRA
Pages: 352








The possibility of the dead returning to haunt the living always evokes dread and horror. In recent times, popular literature and films have seen a surfeit of books relating to zombies and vampires. These books and films follow the same line of thinking: the decayed undead seeking to prey on the living. Or the disembodied dead returning to fulfill their last wishes.

In the hands of poet-novelist Jason Mott, however, the same subject becomes food for contemplation, raising questions most of us would never have thought of.

Mott takes us to the town of Arcadia in the Deep South of the US, where Harold and Lucille Hargrave, a couple in their 70s, reside. The Hargraves have learned to live life without their son, Jacob, who died on his eighth birthday, leaving his parents to grieve. Fifty years later, Jacob returns, still a sweet eight-year-old boy to parents who are now old enough to be his grandparents.

The inexplicable phenomenon is seen around the world as people return from the dead, looking as healthy and whole as they were in life. Not broken, bruised or diseased, as they were in death. The return of the dead throws the world into a state of confusion and chaos. No one has any idea why this is happening. Neither the government nor the religious.

Meanwhile governments across the world set up the International Bureau of the Returned to do the paperwork and reunite people, since the Returned do not wake up in their own neighbourhoods, or even their own countries. 

At the beginning, Lucille dismisses the Returned as devils, even as Harold insists that they “can’t just turn him away,” when they discuss their potential reaction if Jacob were to return. When Jacob does return, it is Lucille who sees Jacob’s return as a miracle and Harold who cannot bring himself to consider the boy as his own.

The Religion of the congregation of the church of Pastor Peters stands out in sharp relief against the backdrop of the Hargraves’ reaction to the Returned. Even though the vast majority of people believe in a God who rose from the dead, they are clearly uncomfortable when the dead actually come to life.

Interspersed with the main narrative about the Hargraves are stories of other Returned.

The Japanese Kamui Yamamoto who wakes up in America and is hunted.

Angela Johnson who, far from being welcomed by her family when she returns, is locked up in a room. Her family is too ashamed to let her be seen. They even refer to her as ‘it.’

Jean Rideau, an artist who, having died in penury, returns to find his work worth millions.

Gou Jun Pei who is prodded and poked by doctors to see if he is still human.

The Wilson family, Jim, Connie, Tommy and Hannah, who were murdered in their beds. When they died, they were deeply mourned. When they returned, they found themselves unwelcome, seen as aberrations in a town known for embodying the essence of simplicity and old-world charm.

Nico Sutil, Erik Bellof, Timo Heidfeld. Nazi soldiers while they lived, now sheltered by a Jewish family in a profound living lesson on forgiveness.

As the numbers of the Returned grow and the living around the world find themselves sharply polarised depending upon whether they sympathise with the Returned or not, the Bureau decides to house them separately in Arcadia’s school, in a system that is not unlike a jail.

That the town of Arcadia is chosen for this prison is itself ironical, considering that Arcadia signifies a real or imaginary place that is synonymous with peace and simplicity.

Mott is a poet and his pithy prose is a treat to read. The narrative is littered with gems such as “Like a child that’s come upon a gleaming carnival in the middle of a dark and lonely forest,” “heavy trucks grumbling through their gears,” and “Where trees thread together against the cloth of the open sky.” Elsewhere, Mott describes Lucille’s sleep as being like a “court summons,” delivered “at only the most unpredictable and discourteous times.

The beauty of the prose catches our attention and refuses to let go. The section in which the missing Jacob is sought after by everyone is heart rending.

In the author’s preface, Mott tells us that he identified himself with the character of Martin Bellamy, the honest agent who works for the Bureau. But for me, it was Lucille with her penchant for weaving dreams out of mere words, her devotion to the child that was once taken away from her, and her relationship with her husband, riddled with a lifetime of love and affection and playful banter, that I found most appealing.

Little by little, Mott builds up her character. Lucille is someone who even in pain looks for a quality word to describe her feelings. She loves to use big words, and insists on teaching her son good manners. She is the kind of person who always carries safety pins around, expecting to need one without warning. And yet the return of her dead son is an event for which she is totally unprepared with no safety pin to hold her emotions together.

Hers is the strongest character in the novel. Even when she appears to be fatigued, she is mentally strong. When Jacob is held within the school, and Harold insists on living with him there, Lucille bravely holds the fort back home. In spite of the opposition of the townsfolk, she shelters the Wilson family and feeds them. In the end, the image I took back with me was that of a mother, arthritic and fatigued, clinging to and covering the body of her once dead son, fearless of her own death, in the hope of saving him this time around.

The return from death raises questions that none have answers to, even though many seek to know. Agent Martin Bellamy of the International Bureau of the Returned questions Jacob about what happened before China. But Jacob can’t remember a thing. Lucille prompts him, “Was there a bright, warm light? A voice?” Unmoved by the passage of time, the little boy is blissfully unaware of where he has been over the last 50 years. All he can remember is that he woke up in China.

Even as people grapple with the big question of why this strange phenomenon is occurring, Pastor Peters raises the unspoken question, “What happens when the dead outnumber the living?

Eventually, the novel does not answer our curiosity about why the dead have returned. But reading it is still strangely a very cathartic experience. The Returned come back to a world that has at best, learned to get along without them. At worst, forgotten them. They return not to fulfill their own unfinished dreams, but to give the living a chance to re-live theirs, to seek forgiveness, to reconcile. A sort of cosmic second chance.

I would strongly recommend this book to those who like books that force them to think.

For those who like books that leave them feeling slightly breathless, and curiously both empty and full at the same time.



(I received a Kindle version of this book from NetGalley.)








2 comments:

  1. "The Returned come back to a world that has at best, learned to get along without them. At worst, forgotten them."

    sad lines in your review but that's how it is i guess. learning to get along without your loved ones is tough really tough.

    ReplyDelete
  2. That's true, Indiana. The grief remains, but life demands that we wipe our tears and get on with life.
    Thank you for your comment.

    ReplyDelete

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