The Returners – Gemma Malley’s third young adult science fiction novel, and the first to stand alone — tells a tense, uneasy story. It may open with a too-familiar earnestness — “What is important,” Will Hodges insists, almost as soon as we meet him, “is that you never know. You never know when everything is going to change” (3) — and, indeed, it may be the case that, by the end of the novel, there has been a little more change for the better than can be entirely believed. But it would be a mistake to make up your mind about this story too quickly, I think; the revolution is at least more internal than external, and there are moments worth experiencing during which it does not seem like a foregone conclusion.
We are in the near future: to be precise, the main action of the novel takes place in suburban England between 4th May and 18th July, 2016. Malley’s extrapolation to this point is minimal. By far the most obvious shaping conceit of The Returners is that The Recession Never Ended, with the consequence that Britain is sliding ever faster down a right-wing nationalist slope. The “National Party” is gaining in power and influence, promising a government that will “work to make Britain great again”, instead of letting the country “get walked over by anyone and everyone” (26). A friend of Will’s father, a policeman-turned-politician called Patrick, takes them to rallies with queasily familiar chants: England for the English! British Jobs for British Workers! If Will’s mother was still alive, it is suggested, things may not have got this bad for this family. But she has been dead for some years, and in her absence neither Will, nor his father — a lawyer whose high-paying private-sector job was a casualty of the economic climate, and who now works for the Crown Prosecution Service – have been immune to the temptations of Patrick’s slogans. Simmering anger, rooted in fear and confusion, is a constant of their lives; and if their resentment is not exactly handled with the subtlety of, say, Ian R MacLeod’s The Summer Isles (2005), it is still grimly recognisable. Enter the plot: a Chinese youth called Yan, once Will’s friend, is arrested for stabbing a white pensioner, and Will’s father is assigned as prosecutor in what is, it becomes quite obvious, a frame job, designed to inflame racial tensions and build support for National Party policies.
While we’re worrying about all this foreground – and, to be honest, whether we can take an entire novel of a narrator as obnoxiously insecure as Will – Malley is establishing a quite peculiar background, one that makes The Returners even more claustrophobic. There’s something funny about Will’s memory. He remembers his mother, dead, “her long hair splayed out over the water like a painting” (5) – like a cliché – but not the circumstances surrounding that death. He remembers whole conversations word for word, and others not at all. He hates history lessons, not least because they give him migraines, and remind him of the terrible dreams – dreams of people suffering and dying – that he doesn’t understand. And then there are the freaks, the strangely familiar people who stare at him in the street: “haunted, sad-looking eyes boring into you, eyes that you recognise; that recognise you, except you don’t really recognise them because you don’t know them, you know you don’t – you’ve been through every person you’ve ever met in your life and they are none of them” (15).
How does all this start to come together? With the hollow-eyed freaks catching up with Will:
“Not reincarnation. Not like other people think of it,” she says. Her voice is soft but insistent. “We actually come back, Will. We’ve existed throughout time. We experience the worst that humankind is capable of; we absorb the pain, contain the horrors. We remember, Will. We are humanity’s conscience.” (134)
Will is, it seems, one of them, and in fact something unprecedented: a Returner who doesn’t remember. Hence the dreams, of Native American massacres, of slave ships, of concentration camps and of Rwanda. He was there, he is told, for all of it. He will be there for it, this time: a gathering of Returners means that suffering is on the way. Hence the visceral reaction against history; as he later puts it, “What’s the point of remembering if it just happens again and again?” (177)
So here, we think, is the twist. Now we will see Will learn about the other side of the coin. The sudden inversion of Will’s privilege seems a bit easy, perhaps, but it’s a worthy story, isn’t it? If there are no characters of colour actually on stage, as such (we have barely seen Yan, and the ethnicity of the Returners is carefully unspecified), Will’s attitudes are worth exploring, aren’t they? And if there’s something disquieting about the notion that humanity was somehow protected from the worst of the Holocaust (and the rest), well, perhaps that’s an unfortunate but unintended consequence.
We should give Malley more credit. The Returners, of course, have not told Will the whole truth, and when they do it becomes clear that we are meant to be asking all the questions listed above, and others. And if the novel’s final third is on one level a conventional broadside against the sort of lazy hands-off fatalism the Returners advocate – they insist that events are “All pre-determined, all set out like milestones on a journey we haven’t met yet” (176-7), and that “We cannot change them. Only humans can change themselves” (178) – it also becomes a rather more nuanced examination of inherited or inculcated responsibility, one that confronts the role of those who held the whip, rather than fetishises those who suffered under it. It remains a white story — a final, cathartic, plot-resolving confrontation aside — and, perhaps just as significantly, a masculine story. But it is also a story that refuses easy sympathy without refusing all sympathy, and one that presents a convincingly scary portrait of the ease with which prejudice can take root and grow, complete with two or three scenes whose intensity I suspect will stay with me for some time. The very end, as I already suggested, perhaps does take Will (and his world) too far for me: “Argue”, he tells the Returners. Argue with those “who think that foreigners are to blame for all our problems, or people who believed 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” (249). It sounds strange to hear the words in his mouth, after everything he has said and done by this point. But I wonder whether, for a few people, it might be what works.