They’re not zombies, because they don’t eat brains. They’re not ghosts, because they’re corporeal and (for the most part) have the same normal bodily functions all humans share. They’re simply the dead come back to life – or, as they’re referred to in Jason Mott’s novel of the same name, the Returned.
The Returned follows the story of Harold and Lucille Hargrave, an elderly couple who lost their eight-year-old son Jacob when he died in 1966. Without warning, Jacob shows up on their front porch, newly returned from the dead, along with a government agent from the newly created International Bureau of the Returned. Jacob’s not the only one though – once-dead people are popping up everywhere around the world, and not necessarily returning to the same place where they died. Jacob, for example, died in his small Southern hometown of Arcadia, but was found just outside Beijing, China.
There’s no rhyme or reason, no order, and so in the absolute chaos of all these Returned, they soon begin to outnumber the living (or the ‘True Living’ as they call themselves eventually). The True Living start to get agitated about the global overpopulation (plus the fact that hey, maybe the Returned aren’t actually ‘people’ in the real sense of the term) and, eventually, the organized manner of handling the Returned descends into real-world chaos and pandemonium.
The subject matter was the most intriguing part of the book, and it was also the part that really had me hooked. After all, it’s a universal question: what would you do if your loved ones returned from the dead? Not all of the characters are as open and accepting as you would think.
Each chapter is divided with a small section that details the account of a different member of the Returned, how they were discovered, and how they’re being taken cared of currently. I’m not gonna B.S. you – one of the sections, detailing one Returned girl’s relationship with her parents after she came back, made me cry. (Ask my roommates. I made a small screeching noise of distress and burrowed my head into my blanket to cry ‘privately’.)
So are they only copies of loved ones or are they the real deal? And if it happened to you, would you care if they were only copies, or would you just be grateful to have your loved ones back at all?
Mott’s writing itself is pretty fantastic. Before The Returned he wrote two collections of poetry, and his writing often takes on a more poetic and musical tone, which fits the imaginative world he’s built and the poetic nature of death itself that serves as the main theme of the novel. There are certain sections where the plot slows down significantly and the book becomes a little slow in terms of pacing, but the descriptions still catch you and keep your interest. Plus, Mott does a good job of getting you to care about all of the characters (even the side characters with only a first name who appear for about ten pages) so you find yourself breezing through the novel wanting to know what happens to everybody in the end and whether or not there are answers to your questions. (And I’m not telling you one way or the other. Why ruin the surprise?)
Lucille Hargrave, the main female character of the novel, was one of the more compelling characters for me. She started out believing the Returned to be devils or things that only Satan himself could come up with (she’s quite religious throughout the novel, even before the Returned started arriving), but after her son comes back to her, she changes her tune. It was one of those instances that can often happen in real life, where personal experience alters religious beliefs, and I really enjoyed the realism of that. And it’s a true testament of Mott’s writing as he does a good job of getting the reader to understand where Lucille is coming from so that the reader isn’t too quick to paint her as a hypocrite for changing her mind. She feels more like a real person than a character in a book, and it’s characters that are fleshed out like Lucille that give the story life – pun sort of intended.
The Returned makes for a strong debut novel under Mott’s belt. It’s emotional and well written, plus the topic matter is something that piques everyone’s interest, as death is a universal event that nobody can escape. Coming back from the dead, however, is another matter, and The Returned does a solid job of addressing that conundrum head-on.
4.5 out of 5 stars
Gabby Taub, the Fantasy Reviewer at Girls in Capes, is a senior at New York University studying creative writing. She enjoys reading, writing, watching TV, and spending time getting lost among the bookshelves at Strand Bookstore.