THE RETURNED is the already highly acclaimed debut novel of Jason Mott, who has been well known for his poetry collections. I’ll start by noting that the underpinnings of the book --- the return of the dead, and displacement --- are not unknown, particularly in science-fiction literature. For example, two of my favorite speculative works deal with such topics: COUNTER-CLOCK WORLD by Philip K. Dick, where the dead begin returning to life as the result of time running backward, and a short story entitled “The Quickening” by Michael Bishop, in which, for unknown reasons, everyone is...switched.
The book also bears a number of similarities --- including its title --- to the French television series “Les Revenants.” However, Mott takes the concepts in some very different and more deeply personal directions. Perhaps most importantly, his writing style is ultimately reminiscent of Thornton Wilder or Ray Bradbury. The result is a book that you will keep, recommend and discuss long after you have reached the final page.
"While a parable, THE RETURNED is also a spiritual tale and a science fiction novel, and it confronts the beholder with the question What would you do? and does not leave until given an answer, however unpleasant it may be."
The plot is both simple and complex, and stunningly so. The “simple” is that people who have died are returned to life, exactly as they were the moment before their departure. Not everyone who has ever lived and died gets the return ticket back, at least as far as can be determined (more on that in a moment). Someone who perished 30 years ago might be returned; another, who passed away a century ago, or even 10 years ago, may still be on the other side of the veil. Oh, another thing: those who get a second bite at the apple aren’t necessarily returned to their last known address, either. Four Nazi soldiers who were killed in battle in World War II find themselves in Rochester, New York; two lovers are separated by the breadth of the North American continent; and a minister is drawn across state lines by a long-forsaken temptation that is doomed to failure.
The primary concern of THE RETURNED is a boy named Jacob Hargrave, who comes from a small Alabama town. Jacob, who drowned when he was eight years old, is found a half-century later along a riverbank in China. His return to his parents --- in their 20s at the time of his death but well into their 70s in the present --- introduces the “complex” part of the equation, which is not as obvious as the question of “how” or even the “why” of the returnings, but rather the “what”: specifically, what is to be done with these newly returned people, who are at first a trickle onto the earth, but later a flood? That is what forms the up-close and personal element of THE RETURNED.
Those who are returned are considered a miracle in the flesh by some, a carbon-based photocopy by others, and an unwelcome and unnatural manifestation by many. The government’s solution is predictably well-intended and reliably hapless: create a Bureau of the Returned and put them in “centers.” As with most such projects, it works for a while. When it stops, though, the overcrowding in the centers and lack of resources soon reach the point of no return on both sides of the fence. Something has to give, and give it does, as neighbor turns against neighbor for reasons no one entirely understands. Before the novel is over, things will have changed irrevocably on many levels, both obvious and otherwise.
While a parable, THE RETURNED is also a spiritual tale and a science fiction novel, and it confronts the beholder with the question What would you do? and does not leave until given an answer, however unpleasant it may be.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on August 23, 2013