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Remember Me Like This

Review

Remember Me Like This

In recent years, recovered kidnap victims Elizabeth Smart, Jaycee Lee Dugard, Amanda Berry, Michelle Knight and Gina DeJesus each have taken a turn in the media spotlight. We’re riveted by the terror of their imprisonment and uplifted by their rescues, but once the cameras have been turned off, they and their families have to go about the business of resuming something like ordinary life. As Bret Anthony Johnston demonstrates with acute sensitivity in REMEMBER ME LIKE THIS, his restrained, elegantly plotted first novel, the tools of fiction are far superior to those possessed by even the most skilled reporter when it comes to exploring that complex subject.

Johnston, the director of creative writing at Harvard, has set his novel in a small town near Corpus Christi, Texas, his hometown and the locale of the stories in his eponymous 2005 collection. Save for one fact, there’s nothing remarkable about the Campbell family --- father Eric is a high school history teacher; mother Laura works for a dry cleaner and volunteers at a marine lab tending to an ailing dolphin; son Griff, age 13, is an avid skateboarder; and Eric’s father, Cecil, is a pawnshop owner with the stain of a felony conviction in his past. The one thing that distinguishes them from their neighbors is the fact that their son, grandson and brother, Justin, has been missing for four years, abducted one night at age 11.

"What distinguishes Johnston’s treatment of this subject matter is his studied refusal to evoke, except obliquely, the lurid or sensationalist details of Justin’s captivity that are the raw meat of news accounts and kidnap survivor memoirs."

When he reappears, almost offhandedly, the Campbells’ relief is tempered by the daunting task of transforming him from what Eric thinks of as a “grateful guest, someone hoping to make a good impression and be invited back,” and immersing him again in the “dull and pleasurable routines of family, the coded systems of loving and being loved.” Whether it’s teaching him to drive a car or events as quotidian as a backyard barbecue or an evening in front of the television, bowl of popcorn in hand, Johnston invests countless simple moments with depth and significance.

A turn in the case against the kidnapper provides the plot momentum for the novel’s second half. As adept as he is at plumbing the depths of the Campbells’ emotional lives, Johnston displays a comparable assurance in his narrative pacing, expertly ratcheting up the suspense as he plants hints of impending violence, while simultaneously impelling us to slow the pace of our reading to appreciate his unaffected prose and every nuance of his character development.

What distinguishes Johnston’s treatment of this subject matter is his studied refusal to evoke, except obliquely, the lurid or sensationalist details of Justin’s captivity that are the raw meat of news accounts and kidnap survivor memoirs. Instead, through the points of view of all of the members of the family except Justin himself, he’s more interested in untangling, with painstaking attention to detail and keen insight, the web of emotions that holds the Campbells in its grip.

In service of that task, Johnston’s characterizations are skillful and sharp. “Grief had disfigured him,” he writes of Eric, who slips into a casual affair during Justin's absence. In the eyes of Griff, Eric “was always working to rally everyone,” yet somehow he can’t shake the feeling he has failed his family. The novel's most interesting character, Laura, “regardless of what she deserved” feels as if she’s been “brought to the surface and resuscitated, revived into a benevolent world.” Griff wrestles with a misplaced sense of responsibility for his brother’s disappearance, as he enters the uncharted territory of his own adolescence in the company of his black clad, green-haired girlfriend, Fiona.

While REMEMBER ME LIKE THIS evokes the spirit of Alice Sebold’s THE LOVELY BONES, it also bears a kinship to novels like Rosellen Brown’s BEFORE AND AFTER and John Burnham Schwartz’s RESERVATION ROAD. Each of these novels portrays a family in crisis who have to stitch their lives back together in the aftermath of an event that rends what can be a fragile fabric, even in the best of times.

Johnston also makes effective use of his setting. The novel spans a summer, culminating with the town’s Shrimporee festival in early September, where the community will celebrate Justin’s safe return. The relentless Gulf Coast heat, with breezes that were “humid and harsh, kicking up sand that stung like wasps,” heightens the book's tension, both interior and exterior.

Before long, there will be a new story of abduction and return splashed across the Internet and our television screens. Anyone who reads Bret Anthony Johnston’s deeply felt novel will come to that account with a sharpened appreciation, almost a sort of x-ray vision, capable of revealing the psychological complexity and the human drama that lies beneath the headlines.

Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg on May 30, 2014

Remember Me Like This
by Bret Anthony Johnston

  • Publication Date: May 13, 2014
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Random House
  • ISBN-10: 1400062128
  • ISBN-13: 9781400062126