This review first appeared on the WROTE Podcast website. To find out more about what makes him tick, and get links to his work, listen to Episode 121: So That's a Thing!
Told in the first person, this is a deep, dark and compelling book. Mike Kendall is a troubled man, on meds and having therapy to untangle the torments of his past, when he is told to go home to his folks for Thanksgiving. At the same time, bones have been found, which might belong to a boy he was friendly with in his teens.
The author has been very clever, as the whole way through the book, I wasn't sure whether Mike was a good guy, or a bad guy trying to cover up past crimes (no spoilers.) For a while, I didn't actually like him very much. He didn't seem that caring towards his girlfriend, forever waiting for him to call her, or particularly sympathetic towards his sister, whose lesbian affair was alienating her from their parents. But I know that people with mental health issues can sometimes come across as unlikeable, so the author had hit the mark with Mike dead on. When we find out the reason for all his past torments, it seemed a little too easy, but there was enough to keep the mind ticking over with everything else going on around him.
It's difficult to say much more without letting slip some of the many secrets the small town of Placeville holds, but I can say that there are many, and they are very dark indeed. I genuinely did not see the denouement coming, and I wasn't expecting the satisfaction I felt at the very end. In fact, I read it twice to make sure I hadn't missed anything.
Anyone fascinated by the "small-town America seething with murky skeletons in the closet" genre, will love this. It is a Salinger-esque character study of one man, but also one place, the town, and the lengths it will go to, to remain normal on the outside. Again, I'm choosing words carefully, so as not to spoil anything. There are elements of horror, of murder/mystery, of sex (and one extremely well-written intimate scene, blooming into a fledgling relationship) and social commentary, as well as the complicated dynamics within a fragmenting family. Half-way through Remains I realised I didn't want to put the book down until I'd finished it. It was a slow burn, to be sure, but well-worth the effort.
J. Warren's Remains is an insular story, almost claustrophobic as we first join Mike Kendall where he lives: walled up in his own mind. As the book progresses, Kendall is drawn back to his hometown of Placerville, when the remains of a long-missing boy are finally found, a boy Kendall had shared a complicated history. No matter how much Kendall tries to resist the underside of the mystery behind Randy McPherson's disappearance, he must confront the lies that he has built his life upon.