Remember Me Like This
In Bret Anthony Johnston's novel Remember Me Like This, Justin Campbell has been missing for four years, his family have buckled under the strain and are
fractured, but are by turns attempting to carry on with their lives. His Mom volunteers in deliberate anonymity at a sea-life centre, his
brother hangs out at a skate park and is on his way to getting his first
girlfriend, his father is having an affair. As his father departs from his regular rendezvous with his mistress, his phone rings, the police believe they have found Justin.
Back in the day, I used to watch a fair bit of Oprah, and as a result came across the story of Shawn Hornbeck, a boy who went missing in 2002. UK readers may not be familiar with the case. He had not been as many thought, murdered, but had been abducted and held captive by a paedophile who police only caught 4 years later when he struck again.
Justin Campbell's backstory is pretty much that of Hornbeck. In fact, it does not so much echo the case as replicate it. Like Hornbeck, Campbell was living within an easy distance of his family and had seen missing posters and appeals for his whereabouts, though allowed certain freedoms, he remained in the psychological thrall of his captor and was afraid to leave.
I've considered before in reviews how I feel when fiction stories borrow heavily from true life events. In this particular instance it feels a bit grotesque - despite the frankly unmistakeable similarity, no acknowledgement is made towards the Hornbeck case in the Authors Note. Given that the boy spent his adolescence being exploited, this feels like further exploitation by somebody he's probably never met for creative gain and profit. I would definitely like to know if Johnson sat down with Hornbeck or his parents at any stage.
But then, fiction and the real life inspiration diverge as it is doubtless all fiction bar the backstory itself. Johnson at least has the decency not to focus on what happened to Justin during those years, instead focusing on the period of adjustment his family go through upon his return. Justin's own perspective is silent, leaving him an enigma. The authorial point of view switches between parents, brother and grandfather, and this is a really interesting and worthwhile story.
You last see your son when he is 11, and he returns a 15 year old, you live in the shadow of the perpetrator filled with hatred and devastation - your child is not forthcoming about what happened and you really don't want to ask. He is both the son and brother you remember, and yet a stranger with unfathomable behaviour and secrets.
In that respect by focusing on the psychology of the family both how they coped with his disappearance and again with his reappearance, it was a really interesting story to read.
It did have a tendency towards a soap opera effect - and whilst the epilogue is there to keep you guessing the prologue is somehow superfluous, containing a frustrating spoiler element about an aspect of plot that didn't need spoiling. The prose has that "American tone" that I so often dislike, and there were sections that I found quite dry.
Though it has an interesting and unique angle to pose as a novel, can it really be called original? And more than this is it not somehow an insult to give a speculative public narrative to a very real and intense private pain?
Verdict : 7/10
2015 Challenge : Despite the lack of acknowledgement, I'm calling this my book based on a true story.