” It was what happened when you spend time near someone who’d suffered the way Laura had: You felt the stranger. You saw the void surrounding her, stranding and diminishing her, and you saw her seeing it, too. Undoubtedly, what everyone experienced around Laura was what she experienced around her poor, ruined son. You only saw the wounds. ” (Ch.21, p.246)
Remember Me Like This delves into the tension and complex dynamics of the Campbell family, which reunites with their son who has disappeared for four years. Despite Justin’s miraculous return, the family struggles to reacquaint itself with normalcy, tiptoeing around their son’s unexplained torments.
The book is very dense; but its beauty is in its complexity, in its characters’ endless search for truth behind Justin’s disappearance. The narrative, which begins with the reunification of the victim and his family, proceeds with multiple perspectives. While the Campbells are dazed with happiness upon his return, as time goes by, they realize no easy endings are coming. The return has become Laura and Eric’s worst nightmare because, of course, while their son was held in the abductor’s apartment, he has been, one can only assume, the victim of unspeakable violence. They are ravaged by the desire to know the truth and the fear of knowing. Justin is glad to be home, but he carries with him four years of damage: anger, abandonment and isolation. The Campbells abide the therapist’s order to avoid broaching about Justin’s captivity for fear of further traumatizing him. But the awkwardness and strained silence suggest that they are incapable of giving voice to their most lurid fears. They tread lightly, tiptoe gingerly, until their reticence erodes what joy they have managed to revive.
Johnston strives to hold back all the juicy details of Justin’s life with his captor that would place this book among the huge canon of thrillers. The closest to fulfilling one’s voyeuristic pleasure is when Justin confides in his brother at the spot where he was abducted. To his brother’s question that alludes to his “away-life” Justin says, “Is that a clever way of asking if he raped me?” In a way, Johnston, using his authorial silence, keeps his characters and reader at a narrative distance in order to keep Justin safe from all interior access. This induces a very powerful moral standard that rebuffs voyeuristic curiosity. Instead of inventing gruesome facts or conjuring a courtroom scene, he redirects the attention into a more private sphere, safe from public prying—the house and hearts of the victim’s family.
There’s Laura, whose fear and guilt have shut down her life. She and her husband have drifted apart. She desires to erase her identity as a mother by signing up to volunteer with her maiden name. Eric has an affair with his friend’s wife Tracy. Cecil the grandfather conceives his own plan to bring the abductor to justice. Griff, wallowed in guilt, believes his argument with his brother is the cause of Justin’s leaving. As their perspectives intertwine, Johnston’s characters are fully realized. All their mistakes, blind spots, and secrets become undone and raw.
Remember Me This Way is far from a mystery or thriller despite the buildup of tension. It is an uplifting portrait of a family in crisis, and how they struggle to overcome it by love and acceptance.
373 pp. Random House. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]
Filed under: American Literature, Books, Contemporary Fiction, General Fiction, Literature Tagged: | American Literature, Books, Bret Anthony Johnston, Contemporary Fiction, Family Fiction, General Fiction, Literature, Remember Me Like This, Trauma