It would be very hard to find anyone on planet earth who wouldn’t wish for another moment with loved ones who have passed away.
It is only natural that we would want to see them laugh, talk, yes even cry just one more precious time, if only to resolve any lingering issues that might remain between us, no matter how trivial, to re-do if you like the flawed moments, real or imagined, leading up to their passing.
Time is rarely that kind, however, marching onwards with fierce determination, leaving us alone staring back down from whence we came in melancholic, regret-filled contemplation, while it moves determinedly, and inexorably, forward.
“But isn’t that the way with memory? Give it enough time and it will become worn down and covered in a patina of self-serving omissions.” (p. 39)
But what if we were granted that impossible to imagine second chance, what if one day that much-missed person/s simply walked right up to us and stared us in the eye, unchanged from all those years ago?
That’s the tantalising premise of Jason Mott’s The Returned in which people’s loved ones begin turning up all around the world, just as they were in the moment they died, ready to resume their cruelly cut short lives.
It asks, quite rightly, whether we would embrace this opportunity with quite the same enthusiasm we have demonstrated when it was nothing more than a far-fetched theoretical possibility?
For those confronted with the return of precious deceased family and friends, sometimes from many decades in the past, the presence of their loved ones with no warning and no explanation, proves to be a polarising phenomenon.
It splits humanity between the True Living, extremists who reject The Returned as abominations, tauntingly cruel copies of the original people they knew and loved, and those who embrace the chance to be reunited with the much-missed people from their past, no questions asked.
Caught awkwardly in between are people like Harold Hargrave, who is forced to make a decision when his perfectly preserved son 8 year old Jacob, drowned some 5o years earlier in a tragic accident, turns up at the family’s farmhouse outside of Arcadia, North Carolina.
His initially sceptical, staunchly religious wife, Lucille, has no such qualms, resuming her calling as a nurturing, fiercely protective mother with alacrity, leaving Harold to wrestle with whether it is really his long lost son standing before him.
While he tries to sort out what he believes, the International Bureau of the Returned dispatches Agent Martin Bellamy to Arcadia to determine what is behind the mysterious reappearance of so many once dead people, a man who is challenged by the sudden return of his much loved mother Patricia, who died of Alzheimer’s some years earlier.
“The buses came and went for the rest of the day with the men watching in silence. They were all gripped with a feeling that something about the world was betraying them, right at this very moment, and perhaps it had been betraying them for years.” (p.158)
He is charged, along with countless others worldwide, with assuring a frightened and fractious populace that The Returned pose no danger, even as he and the bureaucratic machinery of governments around the world scramble to desperately work out just what it is they’re dealing with, well and truly out of their depth as they attempt to handle something humanity has never encountered before.
It is a highly charged scenario and Mott does a masterful job of keeping both the mystery of The Returned intact – we are never told what is behind it nor where it is all leading – and dissecting the various reactions to this most unusual and challenging of situations.
Reactions which vary from murderous, fear-filled violence, peaceful demonstrations both for and against the presence of The Returned and overwhelmed bureaucratic indifference.
He ably demonstrates through the lives of Harold and Lucille Hargrave, and many other members of the townships of Arcadia including Pastor Peters, who is shaken by the arrival of a long lost much-cherished lover, and Fred Green, a one time friend of the Hargraves and now True Living vigilante, the many and varied ways society reacts to The Returned, who for their part simply want to pick up where they left off.
Of course, life is rarely that simple, even the second time around, and Mott doesn’t so much provide answers as a forum for the distillation of the countless ways humanity processed this hitherto wished for but now equally feared and cherished mingling of the living and the dead.
He weaves in issues of faith and fidelity, commitment and abdication, and the nature of love into the many stories of people told in The Returned, deftly balancing between ever-escalating tension and real world crises, and quiet moments of anguished, searching introspection and unmitigated joy, and the uncertainty that lies between the two.
“She [Lucille] looked down at the paper. It all looked simple as it did imposing. The facts were a good enough thing to have, but the facts seldom pointed the way to salvation, she thought. The facts did nothing but sit there and stare out of the darkness of possibility and look into the soul to see what it would do when it faced them.” (p. 248)
Mott’s writing is mostly heartfelt and lyrically poetic, retaining an appealing descriptive beauty even when he is discussing the most troubling of events, only flagging when it commits the cardinal writing sin of stating rather than showing, which tends to rob the narrative of some of its intense vivacity and power to affect.
The Returned also shows a tendency towards the end to favour action over introspection, veering into rather less substantive Hollywood thrills and spills instead of the philosophical and relational richness it mostly sticks to, and this does jar more than a little.
But overall, it is a beautifully written, engagingly thoughtful read, rich in a million and one possibilities and ideas, a worthy attempt at pondering what we would do if we could have exactly what it is our regretful hearts are asking for?