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Bret Anthony Johnston’s debut novel Remember Me like This is blended from a Harlan Coben-esque thriller style of writing with a theme of family-coping that demands profundity, and meets somewhere in an awkward middle. After eleven year-old Justin, son to Laura & Eric & older brother to Griff, goes missing in Southport, Texas, he is presumed dead by most for four years. Johnston skilfully drops the reader into each of the family member’s distractions during Justin’s absence, hitting on the realities of sex, anonymity, and infatuation as tools for escape. When Justin is found, alive & healthy in Corpus Christi, only a bay away from Southport, Laura, Eric & Griff are pulled from their sovereign orbits back into a family.Johnston’s grasp on human truisms makes for sublime character depiction throughout; from a fourteen boy who, despite the revelations of a found lost-brother, is consumed by youthful passion for a girl, to a family that falling away from each other rather than into each other in times of need.
When Justin is returned to the Campbell family in an early climax, Johnston attempts to emulate heart-wrenching drama in illustrating a family, yet four individuals, being struck different blows from the same event. Mirrored by the Campbell’s realisation that their home has become a run-down house in Justin’s absence, their reunion sees them regain their awareness of each other: as they begin to re-build walls and re-sow grass, they also shed their distractions and begin to re-build as a family once more. As we begin to root for the family’s successful rebirth, Johnston cracks the Campbell’s happy-family façade with a twist that instantly sends the family recoiling to their coping mechanisms like frightened animals. The plot builds to literature-loaded storm finale, echoing the highly-charged emotions and anxieties facing the Campbell’s, both individually & collectively. Johnston weaves various threads as though in hope of a startling finish, but the final stroke is instead a predictable & neat bow-tie.
While the concept of Remember Me like This is one of surgical delicacy, I’m undecided whether Johnston has accomplished a seamless wonder or whether he has avoided a too-hard task. Johnston’s choice to leave Justin’s voice out of the novel is a stroke of brilliance, using his family member’s different perspectives to instead tell the story. After all, this is a story about the Campbell family, not about Justin’s ordeal. Yet simultaneously, the unwillingness of the Campbell’s to talk about Justin’s ordeal or their emotion is stretched to its limit and begs the edges of reality. Once Justin is returned, the family tiptoe around the elephant in the room for the rest of the novel, making the reader eager, but for resolution that never delivers. In such a ghoulish plot, Johnston’s writing seems to miss the weight of the substance.
If you enjoy Harlan Coben or T. Jefferson Parker you will appreciate Remember Me like This. As Johnston’s debut novel, it is certainly a worthwhile effort & (hopefully) preludes more refined novels to come.
Reviewed by Abbie Treloar
Remember Me like This
by Bret Anthony Johnston
Published by Two Roads (Hachette)