Every now and then, a reader stumbles across a debut novelist and thinks to herself: What took you so long? Bret Anthony Johnston—­current Director of Creative Writing at Harvard University and named one of the National Book Foundation’s 5 under 35 following the publication of his 2004 short story collection—is such an author. His first novel is so spellbinding, so moving, that one’s only complaint is that we had to wait 10 years to read it.

Remember Me Like This opens with a surprise: It begins where most novels would have ended. We meet the Campbells four years after the traumatic ordeal of losing their then 11-year-old son, Justin, to a kidnapper. Laura and Eric (along with their youngest son Griff) are learning how to claw their way out from the darkness of grief. Then they receive the extraordinary news that Justin is coming home.

Even then, Johnston doesn’t focus his novel on the facts behind Justin’s disappearance, but keeps the focus on the repercussions of the family’s loss rather than its details. Though they never stopped combing the Corpus Christi sand dunes or canvassing the town with “missing” flyers, each family member turned to distractions to cope with their grief. Laura has become a shadow of herself, spending most of her time and energy volunteering at Sea Lab, where she cares for hurt or sick marine life. Eric—a high school history teacher who still loves Laura but is unable to connect with her—has found solace in the arms of travel agent Tracy. Griff, now entering his teenage years and unable to bridge the gap between his parents, focuses his energy on skateboarding and daydreams about his best friend, Fiona.

Yet it is the way Johnston reveals Justin’s painful ordeal in increments and through the eyes and ears of his family members that makes this tale so emotionally powerful. Johnston is a master at creating honest portraits of family members that could easily be your neighbor. Make no mistake about it: Bret Anthony Johnston is a writer to watch.

 

This article was originally published in the May 2014 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

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