Jason Mott. The Returned. Don Mills, Ont: Harlequin MIRA, 2013.

The ReturnedIf someone you loved came back from the dead, exactly as they were before they died, would you want them back in your life again? That’s one of the many questions Agent Martin Bellamy asks Lucille and Harold Hargrave.

People around the world have begun to return from the dead suddenly and without explanation. Agent Bellamy works for the International Bureau of the Returned, an organization that was shaped up hastily in the wake of this new phenomenon. The Returned seek out their families and friends and the Bureau helps reconnect them to their loved ones. Despite the Bureau’s involvement, they are just as baffled as the rest of the world. In truth, the Bureau has simply been “counting people and giving them directions home,” plus filing some paperwork in the process. The Returned can appear anywhere, at any time. Lucille and Harold’s eight year-old son Jacob is found in a village near Beijing.

On August 15, 1966, Jacob Hargrave died on his eighth birthday. His death was accidental and tragic. Since Jacob’s passing, his parents sidestepped their grief. Instead of acknowledging their pain, Lucille and Harold avoided the topic. Decades later, when Jacob reappears, Harold can’t recall Jacob’s name. In his advancing age, Harold has started shrinking, a factor he attributes to his recently curbed smoking habit. By contrast, Lucille has remained in comparably solid physical shape for her age. But nothing makes Harold feel his age so much as the newly returned Jacob, preserved as an eight year-old. Lucille eases instinctively back into her role as mother, though her behavior surprises her. Still Harold and Lucille’s faded memories and the awkward gap between their old age and Jacob’s youth reveals the difficulty of passed time. Suspicions, particularly on Harold’s part, that Jacob is not a real living and breathing person doesn’t help matters. Although Harold and Lucille have been reunited with their son, it won’t be easy to pick up right where they left off.

Their reunion is not an insular event though. As the numbers of the Returned increase, people start to speak out against the “miracle.” The True Living Movement was founded as a campaign to support the living. It tended to attract anti-government enthusiasts. Supporters of True Living are concerned with reestablishing the natural order of the world, which means sending the Returned back to where they supposedly belong. Although True Living is more extremist in its approach, the US government is equally uneasy about the Returned. The government’s mandates for the Returned increase quickly from home confinement to containment in special camps. Tensions mount as small-town Arcadia, and the world, is ripped apart, seam by seam, from the panic surrounding the Returned.

The Returned is poet Jason Mott’s first novel. Mott has written two poetry collections previously. He holds a BA and MFA in creative writing from UNC-Wilmington. His novel was selected by Plan B, Brad Pitt’s production company, to be adapted into a television series. Mott’s background as a poet is obvious; his writing is lyrical and sophisticated. The novel is told in the third-person with standard enumerated chapters, but Mott intersperses the central story and its chapters with vignettes of the Returned. Mott also forms convincing relationships and connections between his characters, like the playful jabs between Lucille and Harold and Jacob’s goofy jokes. Don’t read the novel expecting pure science fiction or detailed answers at the end. There are no satisfying answers here. Mott explores memory and time as well as loss and second chances with loved ones.

Check this title’s availability in the UNC-Chapel Hill Library catalog. And read this article from The Daily Tar Heel to learn more about the inspiration behind Jason Mott’s novel and his writing process.

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