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Book Review & Giveaway: The Returners by Gemma Malley

Title: The Returners

Author: Gemma Malley

Genre: Young Adult, Speculative Fiction, Horror

Publisher: Bloomsbury (US & UK)
Publication Date: March 2010 (US & UK)
Hardcover: 256 pages

What happens when your past catches up with you and you don’t like what you see?

A powerful novel that questions how we take responsibility for our actions

Will Hodges’ life is a mess! His mother is dead, he has no friends and he thinks he is being followed by a strange group of people who tell him they know him. But Will can’t remember them . . . at first. And when he does, he doesn’t like what he can remember.

While Will is struggling with unsettling memories, he learns that his past is a lot deeper than many people’s, and he has to find out if he is strong enough to break links with the powerful hold that history has on him.

This compelling novel, set in an alternate future, challenges readers to consider the role we all have to play in making our society, and asks how much we are prepared to stand up for what’s right.

Stand alone or series: Stand alone novel

How did I get this book: Review Copy from the publisher

Why did I review this book: I was very impressed with Gemma Malley’s dystopian young adult novel The Declaration (and one of these days I WILL review The Resistance, I swear!), and so when we received ARCs for this new book, I was understandably stoked.


Will is a troubled young man. An old soul in a young body, Will has been through a lot. His mother committed suicide before his eyes when he was a young boy. His father has become a bitter, angry man. To Will, happiness is a faded, ever-illusive memory.

[…]as far as I can remember, that day was the last time I felt happy. That is the last thing I can remember before everything changed.

Stupid thing is, I didn’t even feel particularly happy at the time. But you don’t, do you? I mean, you don’t generally look up and think ‘You know what? I’m really happy today.’ It’s afterward that you realise – when you look back. Happiness is weird like that. It’s not like the pictures you see in adverts of people grinning manically, throwing children in the air and whooping just because they’ve bought some crappy washing powder or something. That kind of happiness doesn’t exist. At least, I’ve never felt it that way. Happiness. Well, it’s more like a photograph of someone you keep somewhere safe to look at every so often. You look at it and you feel warm and sand because the person’s gone and you realise that when they were there the sun seemed to shine more. It’s kind of screwed up – like happiness never just ‘is’; it always ‘was’. Or maybe that’s just me.

Will has also been having nightmares – horrible, terrifyingly vivid dreams about death and despair across countries and different historical events (from Auschwitz to Rawanda). There’s also a mysterious group of people – “freaks,” to Will – that seem to show up no matter where he goes. They appear with their own haunted eyes, insisting that Will is one of them. A Returner. Destined to live, die, and be reborn only to experience the most awful, hateful, pain humanity is able to inflict on itself. Returners are part of a never ending cycle, their destinies already set in stone…or so they think.

Will refuses to believe, though, challenging his future and his part in the Returner’s endless saga of pain and suffering. Everything changes when Will witnesses his neighbor, an immigrant named Yan, get arrested for trying to help a man stabbed outside of a convenience store. Will faces the decision of his life – of all his lifetimes – to accept his destiny, or to fight it.

As I mentioned above, I was a big fan of The Declaration, its insightful (and timely) look at certain issues, so I did have high hopes for The Returners. And, I am very pleased to report that this stand alone novel lived up to the bill. This is a slim book at just over 200 pages, but it packs quite a punch, as a socially and philosophically conscientious book. Young Will lives in a near future version of Britain, where a conservative, naturalist party set on banishing any and all immigrants from the UK’s borders slowly begins to amass power. In the midst of a severe economic recession, Will’s father loses his job while the family’s (immigrant) neighbors prosper. Although Will doesn’t agree with his father’s vitriol towards immigrants “stealing” jobs or being the root of all the wrongs in England, he doesn’t feel anything one way or another and tries not to get involved – until Yan’s arrest for a crime he did not commit. Now, I’m not sure how immigration as a platform is in the UK, but as a resident of southern California, I can tell you that the rage and prejudice aimed at immigrants – especially Mexican immigrants – is a timely, important issue. In The Returners, the anti-immigrant sentiments expressed by Will’s father and his politician friend Patrick is a terrifying look into a possible vision of the future (albeit a bit simplistic and overdramatic a vision).*

Beyond the cognizant take on the significant issue of immigration and discrimination, The Returners simultaneously tackles the age old debate of fate versus free will. The concept of Returners is a little amorphous – these are souls that live the same tortured lives over and over again, in different locations and different times. The reasoning given in the book – they are “absorbing” pain and suffering to protect humanity from itself – feels a little thin, however. The Returners are of the mind that there is nothing that can be changed, that everything is predestined and though the path may vary, the end goal is always the same. However, Will with the help of his childhood friend Claire tries to challenge all this, refusing to blindly submit to the same torturous role yet again – choosing free will over destiny. Although the rationale of the Returners isn’t the strongest (are ALL of these souls really so broken that never once have they tried to fight back) and their backstory remains a mystery (why are they really there? What is their purpose?), I love the way Ms. Malley handles the hefty dichotomous issue.

The strongest part of the book, however, lies not in its world building or plotting (both of which are average), nor in its impressive thematic scope. Rather, it is the characterization of Will that makes The Returners a truly memorable novel. Yes, there were some writing issues, but the voice Ms. Malley creates for Will Hodges is incredible – evocative, honest, tortured. While reading Will’s narrative, I occasionally stopped reading, taking time to reflect about an observation Will has made. It’s that kind of a book, with that great a narrator – which is a rare and wonderful thing.

Granted, all this praise in mind, there were some serious issues with the book. The whole concept of the Returners is, as I’ve mentioned above, not the most fleshed out. Around the halfway mark, the book begins to drag and become repetitive – Will sees the “freaks” following him, they try to tell him he is one of them, Will denies it. Lather, rinse, repeat. It wears on a reader’s patience after a while. In terms of writing, my biggest complaint is that the book felt so uneven, its undeniably brilliant characterization and narrative voice warring for dominance against awkward execution and plotting. While I love the message and the ultimate ending of the book, the last act of The Returners stumbles in its delivery. (For a few moments it all becomes very “Welcome to the Dark Side, Luke! Embrace your destiny!” if you know what I mean.)

But all that said, I still devoured The Returners in a single sitting and wholeheartedly recommend it. It’s a novel with heart, with a hero that is desperately, movingly real and a strong message concerning politically and ethically sensitive topics.

*I should note that both Ana and myself try to adhere to a “no politics at the dinner table” policy – but I will mention that The Returners will not be for everyone (if your politics are more right wing/conservative, or if you have a strong anti-immigrant stance, you probably won’t like this book at all). Consider this your caveat emptor.

Notable Quotes/Parts: From the first chapter:

MAY 4TH 2016

I like it here. It’s probably one of my favourite places. Don’t know why. Or maybe I do. There’s something about the river at dusk. In the spring, I mean. When the sky goes all red and pink and there’s no one around – and even if there is, they don’t stay for long, rushing away to whatever it is they’ve got to do. What’s so important anyway? I bet if people thought about it for a moment they’d realise that all the rushing is a complete waste of time. Chill out, I say. Forget about it. Like the ducks.

Ducks are cool. Whatever happens, whatever gets thrown at them, they just carry on, their little legs paddling. Unfazed. They always look like they’re smiling.

I found her here, when she died. Mum, I mean. I can remember bits about that day, but then I think maybe I’m just remembering the stories I’ve been told, because I remember different things at different times, things that don’t really add up, like a series of photographs but the continuity is all wrong.

I didn’t talk about it at all, apparently. Didn’t even go for help – I guess I knew it was too late for that – I just sat there watching, watching over her. She was floating, face up, her long hair splayed out over the water like a painting. She was peaceful. Not like in real life, not in the months before. She’d be happy one minute and crying the next, and I could never see why. I was eight when she did it. Threw herself into the river to escape it all, to escape from her life, from me. They said I shouldn’t take it personally; they said it was nothing to do with me. But I knew even then they were wrong. Mums generally don’t throw themselves in rivers. Not when things are going OK.

I knew immediately it was my fault. Afterwards I remember my heart clenching slightly every time Dad left the house, in case he was going to go off too.

He didn’t, though. He’s still around.

She was nice, my mum. When she wasn’t laughing and playing, or locking herself in the bathroom in tears, she used to sew things, knit things. I had a million jumpers, all in weird colours and sometimes a mad mix of clashing hues because she’d found some wool on sale, because they’d caught her imagination.

She had a lot of imagination, my mum. She used to tell me stories about witches and wizards and ghosts and ghouls, but never really scary ones. She talked like the witches and ghosts were on our side; it was the humans you had to watch out for, the humans who’d betray you and let you down.

The only other humans in our house were me and Dad. I guess we let her down quite a lot really. We
didn’t mean to. He works hard, my dad. He doesn’t always have time. And I could have worked harder, could have helped more.

Could have. What a pointless couple of words.

They used to tease me at school about the jumpers.

But the funny thing – funny in retrospect, I mean – was I always defended them. Vociferously, like my life depended on it, like those jumpers were more important than anything else in the whole wide world. Maybe they were. Maybe I knew deep down how easily they’d unravel if you just picked at one for a bit.

You can download the full excerpt online HERE.

Rating: 7 – Very Good

Giveaway Details:

We have ONE copy of The Returners up for grabs. This time the contest is limited to the UK only! To enter, simply leave a comment here letting us know where you stand on the fate versus free will debate – is everything predetermined and immutable? Or are our futures more fluid, changing based on our own decisions and actions? Or is it some blend of the two? One entry per person, please! Multiple comments will be disqualified. The contest will run until Saturday, April 10th at 11:59 PM (PST). Good luck!

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  • danielle
    April 6, 2010 at 12:06 pm

    I like to think my fuck-ups are purely part of the Higher Power’s plan for me but, lets face it, that’s just a cop out.

  • Lenore
    April 6, 2010 at 12:28 pm

    Based on your review, I think I’ll pass. The problems you mentioned would really bother me.

  • Lee
    April 6, 2010 at 3:14 pm

    Its a blend of the two. When something unexpected happens you’ve got to accept things are beyond your control. Great review of the book.

  • mel butcher
    April 7, 2010 at 12:04 am

    I do believe in fate, however i also think that we can change the plans laid out for us if we close ourselves down enough.

  • Nikki Egerton
    April 7, 2010 at 6:50 am

    I think I beleive in free will – that whatever happens to us happens because of the choices we make. How exciting to have a UK only contenst!!!

    Nikki xxx

  • Hannah
    April 7, 2010 at 10:30 am

    I believe that no matter what, everything will turn out okay in the end, but I believe we get their through the actions we choose. I am a big believer in free will. And I think everything does happen for a reason, but that the reason isn’t fate – I don’t think I’m ‘destined’ to do anything except for what I end up choosing to do. Interesting question though, definitely had to think for a minute there.

  • Stephanie K.
    April 7, 2010 at 11:15 am

    I do believe in fate, but I also believe we can choose what direction our lives can go.

  • Amanda Isabel
    April 7, 2010 at 12:38 pm

    Unfortunately, I am not in the UK, but I thought I’d weigh in on this issue: I think it’s a mixture of both fate and free will which is why I think books discussing this works!

    Thanks for the review! Can’t wait to pick this one up! 😀

  • Gemma Malley
    April 8, 2010 at 11:58 am

    Just a quickie – saw you on Twitter (I’ve just got myself on there!) and wanted to thank you for reviewing the book and for getting such a great discussion going. This kind of thing makes my day:)

  • SavvyVerse&Wit
    April 8, 2010 at 12:58 pm

    too bad this giveaway is UK only. This is a book that my book club is considering for our next selection. Great review as always.

  • Thea
    April 8, 2010 at 2:11 pm

    Gemma – Oh gosh, huge fangirl crush moment. Thank you for stopping by and commenting! As you can see, I really enjoyed THE RETURNERS :mrgreen:

  • Esther
    April 9, 2010 at 1:31 am

    I opt for the happy medium.
    I believe we have free will and should strive to be the best person we can be but sometimes you just have to relax and realize that if you try control or feel responsible for every single event in your life you will drive yourself, and those around you, insane.

  • Jade
    April 9, 2010 at 11:52 am

    I think it’s a mixture of the two. We have free will in the directions our lives take, but some things are just down to pure fate. How else do you explain being thrown into one of the many curves life throws at us? Or finding yourself in a situation when you’ve done everything in your power to avoid it.

  • Gemma Malley
    April 9, 2010 at 12:00 pm

    No problem Thea – such a great site you have here; a wonderful source for bookish people!
    And for the record I think we do have free will, but we have to use it – I think it’s all to easy not to have it(ie to let your background/family/genes dictate your life) but success and happiness means so much more when you’ve fought for it and really pushed yourself towards something that matters to you.
    Have a great evening everyone!
    Gemma x

  • Rhiannon Hart
    April 9, 2010 at 3:02 pm

    *Not a comp entry*

    Wow Thea, awesome review! I was quite pleased with The Declaration myself. I love how Malley deals with fate/free will in that book too. Her comment above is spot on–we have to consciously use our free will and fight for it. It’s so easy just to let things unfold as they will and go along with it. Fate, to me, can be a bit of a cop out, an excuse to be lazy.

    I’ll be picking this book up.

  • kay
    April 11, 2010 at 4:07 am

    I haven’t read The Declaration but heard lots of good things about it. The Returners sounds like my type of book so I’ll probably give it a try. Thanks for the review!

  • The Book Smugglers » Blog Archive » Smugglivus 2010 Guest Author: Gemma Malley
    December 10, 2010 at 4:11 am

    […] Recent Work: The third book in the trilogy, The Legacy, as well as a stand alone novel The Returners, reviewed HERE. […]

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