My response to The Returners was, admittedly, a bit odd. Although I'm well aware of the many good reasons to avoid talking about authorial intent, I could still find no way of doing so in reviewing this book. It was quite apparent that the book the author intended is one which contains a powerful message about the need to stand up against bigotry and hatred, and does so through an unusual premise. The one I actually read, on the other hand, is so muddled in its delivery that it undermines its own message about free choice and responsibility for our actions, and implicitly suggests something quite repugnant about the responsibility of victims for their own suffering.
It's 2016, and 15-year old Will Hodges's life could be described as nothing better than miserable. His mother committed suicide when he was eight, and his father has become increasingly bigoted since she died, partly in response to losing his job in the 2009 recession. Although the plentiful flashbacks show pretty clearly that Will's father was already a racist, being laid off brought out this all too common reaction: "If they think holding on to foreigners and letting Brits go is how to claw the way out of recession, then they deserve to go bankrupt" (p. 12). When Will's mother dies, his father is bitter and full of hatred, and her death contributes to his deterioration, for reasons which only become fully clear fairly late in the book. Harder to take than the father's mindset is Will's own acceptance of this type of intolerant thinking. As he puts it early on, "If someone's stupid enough to wind up homeless, it doesn't mean they can expect to move in with you. So why should foreigners think they should be able to move here, take our jobs, just because their countries have run out of money?" (p. 17). It's clear that Will is desperate to be on his father's "side" because of his isolation, but it does make it difficult to empathise with him.
One of the reasons for Will's isolation is the fact that he's distressed by seeing people he calls "freaks". He sees the freaks constantly, as they seem to be following him around. He recognizes them by their eyes (always mournful or haunted eyes), and they appear to recognize him, but yet he's sure he doesn't know them. Will also has terrible, vivid nightmares, about concentration camps and massacres, which he tries to explain away as having been caused by his school history lessons on the Holocaust.
Then one day while walking home, he comes upon his neighbour and one-time friend Yan leaning over a man who's just been stabbed. He does nothing to help, nor is he willing to go to the police station to make a statement saying that it had looked as if Yan was trying to save the man, rather than that he was the killer. Instead Will makes the statement to his father's best friend Patrick, an ex-cop and an even worse racist than Will's father. It's very apparent to the reader that trusting Patrick to pass on the information honestly is a bad mistake and one that may have serious repercussions for both Yan and Will.
Eventually, Will ends up agreeing to talk with one of the freaks, who's been waiting for him outside school. Others come to join them, and tell Will that he's one of them, a "Returner". The concept of the Returners is simple enough superficially, as they "actually come back." They "experience the worst that humankind is capable of . . . absorb the pain, contain the horrors." They remember. They are "humanity's conscience" (p. 134). If you're a bit fuzzy on how the returning might work to "contain the horrors", I was too, and still am. Will apparently last lived in Auschwitz, but instead of Returning straight away, or after a short recuperative period, has been "off the grid" for over 50 years.
You might think that discovering you weren't really a normal person, but were actually a supernatural being of some kind, destined (by what or whom is never addressed) to return to lifetime after lifetime of the worst horrors in human history would be about as bad as it could get. But it isn't. The Returners aren't even necessarily there to be the victims of those horrors, but can also be the perpetrators. An idea like this—that a character might be "destined" to perform the most appalling acts of brutality and hatred—requires incredibly careful writing. Unfortunately, we get anything but. Douglas, one of the other Returners, says to Will: "You are not evil. You simply occupy human evilness" (p. 175), and "What you are facing is the reality of human existence . . . the human condition. Great joy is tempered by great pain, good deeds by terrible ones. All predetermined, all set out like milestones on a journey we haven't yet made." (pp. 176-77). Possibly worst of all is: "Evil is an emotive word [ . . . ] Unhelpful too. You are yin to our yang. You have a different energy force, that's all" (p. 202).
Will doesn't accept that the Returners are right, can't understand why it would make sense that their living and suffering and inflicting suffering with no control over their actions would make a difference to the world. (At this point, it's impossible to be at all fair to the book without a degree of spoiling, given the significant change in direction taken towards the end.) As it happens, he's right not to accept what they tell him. The fundamental problem I had with the premise is that the Returners have been remembering and understanding their memories and their purpose in the scheme of things for hundreds if not thousands of years—and yet it turns out that their understanding is wrong. If some being or force had been explaining it to the Returners for his/its own twisted purposes it might have made sense, but that they just knew and yet got it wrong is a situation I find deeply unsatisfying.
With this lack of clarity in the underpinnings of the story, the message (and there's no doubt that this is a novel with a message) becomes more confused and ambiguous with every twist. We see one guard at Auschwitz, placed there by whatever power determines the destiny (and behaviour) of the Returners, but what does this say about the freedom of choice of other concentration camp guards? Similarly, why is Patrick responsible for his actions when others might not be? How much responsibility does Will's father have for his guilt if Will insists he could have been prevented from going wrong if only people had argued with him? "Argue with me and people like my dad and the others who think that foreigners are to blame for all our problems, or people who believe different things, or people who eat different food or watch different television programmes. Tell them they're wrong. Make them see it. Force them to see it." (p. 249). Force them to see that they're wrong—how might that work, then?
Most disturbing of all is the implication of Will's insistence that the Returners should start to fight back, as Yan's younger brother finally does. This is how Will puts it to one of the Returners: '"Yeah, I get it," I interrupted rudely. "You're here to suffer. But how about you change that? How about you take people like me on, pin them to the floor instead of letting them beat you up?"' (p. 249). Will directly relates a younger boy's attack on the older one who's been bullying him to the victims of atrocities like the Holocaust. Clearly Malley didn't intend to say that the Holocaust wouldn't have happened if the Jews had only attacked the Nazis instead of "letting them" beat them up. Nonetheless, Will's statement clearly implies a degree of responsibility in the victims' ability to prevent their being victimized.
There's another element I found disturbing, and although it's less universally significant than the blaming of victims I've discussed above, it is also likely less visible and so needs to be mentioned: the presentation of mental illness in the novel. The descriptions of Will's mother early in the book seem to be a straightforward (if deeply stereotypical) picture of someone suffering from a severe depression: on the "bad days" she was "just taken over by something . . . She used to just sit there and rock back and forward and even if I threw myself at her she didn't bat an eyelid, just kept right on going" (p. 8). Later this is somewhat undermined by Will's saying that he remembers seeing his parents fight and his father forbidding his mother ever to have Yan's father in the house again: "thinking about it, that was the beginning of it. Her depression. Her disengagement. After that her eyes never really lost the sadness underneath" (pp. 124-25). That's really not the same thing as clinical depression. The morning she was found floating in the river, one of the many people hanging around shouts that "she'd been killed by 'one of them', that there would be vengeance for her death" and a policeman shouts back "It was suicide, mate" (pp. 8-9). That a policeman would make this assumption about a woman found floating in the river is so extremely unlikely that one almost is forced to feel that her supposed suicidal depression was merely a convenient plot-point for the author. The sense that there is no degree of knowledge—or concern to get it right—about mental illness is only reinforced by what Will says about the psychiatrist whom he's made to see in the months after his mother died. First, "The shrink said he thought I was paranoid." This is the actual word used by the psychiatrist rather than Will's later interpretation, as is made clear by the narrative's continuing, "Dad told me that was another word for mad . . . " (p. 14). And even more unlikely: " . . . the shrink said I was imprinting my own desires and fears on to strangers. He said I was looking for my mother" (p. 19). This is not a very credible description of the treatment an eight-year-old child would receive from a psychiatrist.
At the end of the book, Will repeats these words of wisdom given to him by his friend Claire: " . . . the future isn't set, because there is no destiny, just the life you carve out for yourself. She says I can carve out any life I choose" (p. 257). Although it was a surprisingly hopeful ending for the Will we'd seen through much of the book, the idea that the future isn't "set" isn't a particularly new or unusual one. Much as I might agree with the message that we all have freedom of choice and therefore have to take responsibility for our own actions, I don't think this book pulled off its delivery skillfully enough to make it the powerful and empowering story its author intended it to be.
Hallie O'Donovan lives in County Dublin with two daughters, two dogs, and a precarious stack of books at the end of the bed which will almost definitely take just one or two more.
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