Where Things Come Back by John Corey Whaley
From Simon & Schuster:
In the remarkable, bizarre, and heart-wrenching summer before Cullen Witter’s senior year of high school, he is forced to examine everything he thinks he understands about his small and painfully dull Arkansas town. His cousin overdoses; his town becomes absurdly obsessed with the alleged reappearance of an extinct woodpecker; and most troubling of all, his sensitive, gifted fifteen-year-old brother, Gabriel, suddenly and inexplicably disappears.
Meanwhile, the crisis of faith spawned by a young missionary’s disillusion in Africa prompts a frantic search for meaning that has far-reaching consequences. As distant as the two stories initially seem, they are woven together through masterful plotting and merge in a surprising and harrowing climax.
Where Things Come Back is a very good book, but not a great book.
I love Whaley’s portrayal of small-town living in the South and of Cullen’s voice, both of which rang true. Cullen, in particular, feels like a real person, a thoughtful young man who is complex and thoughtful and endearingly flawed.
I also love that Cullen’s first-person narration alternates chapters with a separate third-person narrative, and the two threads eventually collide in an unexpected way. Sometimes when authors try to tie together seemingly unrelated events in clever ways, the results feel too contrived. Whaley somehow makes it work. While the third-person narrative is a little bit weaker than Cullen’s story, it develops relatively organically and dovetails with the main narrative in a believable way.
Finally, I love the ambiguity of the ending. Whaley establishes Cullen as an imaginative youth, one who spends his free time devising interesting titles for unwritten books and one whose daydreams of zombie invasions feature people from real life. As such, though Cullen seems like a good kid, he is somewhat of an unreliable narrator. Is the ending happy or is it an open question? It’s up to the reader to decide what all of the earlier symbolism implies.
Unfortunately, the earlier symbolism is my main complaint. Whaley spends a lot of time establishing biblical references (a saintly brother named Gabriel, an avenging angel from apocrypha), a motif of resurrection and return (frequent mention of zombies, a missionary and a young woman who both come home after aborted attempts at branching out), and even biblical references to resurrection and return (the Lazarus bird). All of it feels a little heavy-handed and overt, as if Whaley did not trust the reader to tease out the themes themselves.
But all in all, Where Things Come Back is a wonderful work, fraught with suspense and tempered with humor. It is as challenging and thought-provoking as the reader allows it to be, and it truly deserves all the accolades it has received.