Where Things Come Back
John Corey Whaley
Published 2011 by Atheneum (Simon & Schuster)
I liked this book, but didn't love it. I think I would have been happier if it had felt more complete, but while it was a good story, the ending seemed abrupt.
Where Things Come Back is told from two perspectives. First is Cullen Witter, a seventeen-year-old stifled by his tiny town in Arkansas. At the same time a depressed birdwatcher thinks he's found a species of woodpecker that was thought to be extinct, Cullen's younger brother vanishes without a trace. Cullen is a fascinating narrator, treating most of the rest of the town with contempt as their obsession with the woodpecker distracts from his family's search for Gabriel. While his chapters are mostly in first person, he occasionally shifts into third person to distance himself from the situation or to imagine some wildly unlikely outcome. Said unlikely outcome usually involved zombies, which was fun.
The second perspective was that of Benton, an uncertain missionary in Africa. This one's a little harder to describe than Cullen's without spoilers, but in some ways it was more interesting. To be totally honest, these chapters sort of straddled the border between interesting and obnoxious, though they managed to stay mostly on the interesting side. Crazy people are special like that. But interesting or obnoxious, these passages are very well written, enough that I could believe the characters believed in their motivations, even the obviously insane ones. That's pretty impressive.
The small town of Lily, Arkansas was a fascinating setting. Never having lived in a really small town like that, I had previously thought of it as something of a mythological creature, but Whaley managed to bring Lily to life in this story. The town was absolutely essential to the book, even outside the woodpecker craze. It affected the story in all of the ways the varied cast interacted, in the way they behaved, even the way they thought.
My biggest issue with this book was in the ending. Even though some of the plot was concluded, a lot of the loose ends were just left hanging, and I was left on the last page thinking, "Well, then what happened?" Even the pieces that had an ending didn't quite resolve – there was no wrapping up at all. The book just sort of ended, which I'm generally not a huge fan of.
But don't let that stop you from reading this book. It's interesting and well written. The characters are really individuals and the setting is excellent. It's a bit slow, so you might not want to pick it up if you're looking for epic battles, but it's a good book.