The Returners by Gemma Malley

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The Returners by Gemma Malley

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Category: Teens
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Jill Murphy
Reviewed by Jill Murphy
Summary: Wonderful exploration of free will versus determination set in a near-future Britain facing the rise of the extreme right. There's a slightly supernatural element - and it's thoroughly chilling. Intelligent, thought-provoking stuff from Malley as usual and kudos to the way she manages to produce it without any loss of tension.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 288 Date: February 2010
Publisher: Bloomsbury
ISBN: 1408800918

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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.

Will almost wishes he could be a duck. He has precious little to smile about. Sitting watching those ducks go about their business so blithely by the pond, he can't help but remember his mother who committed suicide there some years ago, when Will was just a tiny lad.

It's been difficult to move on. Will misses his mother horribly. He's not doing so well at school and he doesn't have many friends - well, none, actually, since he fell out with Claire. His father has retreated into grief and an ever-closer allegiance with the new right-wing political party that wants to send all the immigrants home. And if that weren't enough, Will is haunted by strange people with dead eyes. They follow him everywhere, these freaks, and Will can't be sure if they're real, or - even worse - they're a symptom of the kind of mental instability that lost him his mother in the first place.

But then the freaks make contact. And Will doesn't like what they have to say at all - but he can't deny them. Deep down, he knows he's a Returner. The half-memories, the dreams, the strange connection to history - they can't all be denied. But can Will deny his destiny? Can he shape the future? And can he save an innocent boy from a terrible fate?

I knew I couldn't go wrong if I kicked off the New Year with a book by Gemma Malley. Her book about the cruelties of future immortality, The Declaration, knocked me for six, and its follow-up, The Resistance, was just as good. Malley has a knack of combining intelligent and thought-provoking themes with a page-turning tension that keeps you up reading until far too late an hour. There's nothing patronising or didactic about her books and she's not afraid to put the greyest of ethical areas out there for consideration by her young readers, and she's not afraid to let them make up their own minds either.

Here, in Will, she's exploring the tensions between free will and fate. Can Will change his fate? Can he make the world any better? Can any of us? Do we count? These are important questions asked by every generation and Malley cleverly feeds them into current preoccupations - Will's father feels disempowered, originally because he lost his job while his immigrant neighbours thrived, and then because Will's mother makes friendships outside the family unit - with the same hated immigrants. Terrible consequences flow from these tensions.

The supernatural element in the idea of the Returners themselves - I won't say too much and spoil anything - is well done and used as a motif for the main philosophical themes in the book rather than as any real fantasy or sci-fi meme. The truth of it doesn't really appear until about halfway through and by that time the tension was almost unbearable - I truly felt inside Will's skin as he struggled with fears about his sanity and I felt as sick as he did when the full picture finally emerged.

It's paced perfectly, with elegant and fluid writing. There are big ideas and a charismatically complex central character who is deeply conflicted. It sounds warning bells about extremism and it doesn't pull its punches. You simply can't put it down until you've finished it.

I think that makes The Returners a five-star book. Highly, highly recommended.

My thanks to the nice people at Bloomsbury for sending the book.

Dirty Angels by Andrew Clover adds a surreal wild humour to a kitchen sink drama with a supernatural element and philosophical themes. It doesn't have a supernatural element, but if they liked the authoritarian undertones in The Returners, they might also like Blackout by Sam Mills.

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Buy The Returners by Gemma Malley at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Returners by Gemma Malley at


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