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Leave it to a poet to bring beauty and soul to the well-trodden undead genre.

Jason Mott's impressive debut novel, The Returned, is a tense and touching treatise on life, death and life again, centered on an aging couple dealing with the resurrection of their 8-year-old boy nearly 50 years after he drowned in a river.

Little Jacob Hargrave arrives back from the Great Beyond for an unknown reason, and like many others all around the world, returns to a place far from where he originated. In his case, he mysteriously reappears in China and makes his way back to small-town Arcadia, N.C., and his parents.

Now in their 70s, Harold and Lucille Hargrave have opposite reactions to Jacob's return. Lucille, a devout churchgoer, sees it as a miracle of God that he's back. Harold, who was the one who found his son dead in the river, has not been the same since and, while he wants to believe Jacob is Jacob, he can't come to grips with it.

The whole town is actually having the same problem - the return of Jacob as well as a murdered family and others are a reminder that Arcadia has had a long history of violence and tragedy. The situation is only exacerbated from there: The government responds to rising tensions all over the world by having a military crew, led by a cold and unfeeling colonel, fence in Arcadia and turn the local school into the kind of internment and concentration camp seen in conflicts of yesteryear.

While there is something odd about them, the Returned are for the most part the people they were, and they don't take kindly to being imprisoned. Similarly, some of the townspeople don't want their town being taken over by the Returned. Things get hairy from there.

Harold and Lucille are unfortunately split up early on when Harold and Jacob are arrested after it becomes illegal for the Returned to be out walking around. Still, the adults do their part in helping the Returned - Harold stays close to Jacob and others in the school and the ensuing powder keg that becomes, and Lucille does her best on the homefront yet still struggles with her own blind faith at times.

Martin Bellamy, an agent for the International Bureau of the Returned, acts as a support mechanism for the Hargraves when the rest of the country seemingly turns its back on them. Fred Green, a one-time friend of the family, now is part of a "living movement" wanting the Returned gone - yet even he's not one-dimensionally villainous, seeing as he how he continues to wrestle with the death of his own wife.

In crafting this tale of loved ones coming back, Mott symbolically explores issues of civil rights, tolerance, religion and even modern problems like overpopulation, though the author is never overly political or preachy. He also uses interspersed chapters to introduce other characters and show the effect of the Returned on places and people outside Arcadia.

Action sequences move the plot along at points, yet it's the quieter moments where Mott's prose truly shines - the local pastor finds he's unable to hunt-and-peck his thoughts on a keyboard or find the right words when a deceased love from his past wants to see him; Lucille keeps a close watch on her boy "as if he were a candle in a house of drafts."

At a time when you can't throw a detached foot and not hit some kind of post-apocalyptic zombie fiction, be it book or TV show, it's welcome to find a rare literary piece on the undead that, like The Lovely Bones, puts an emotional spin on the otherworldly. The entertainment world has taken notice, too - a TV adaptation of Mott's book, the new ABC series Resurrection, is set to debut in March.

In the end, the zombie-chewed brains of The Walking Dead come nowhere near the eternal heart of The Returned.

By Brian Truitt, USA TODAY

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