Desert Isle Keeper
Justin A. Reynolds’ impressionistic, speculative, emotionally accessible and beautifully original novel, Early Departures, explores the pain of regret that attends sudden and unexpected death, especially when it happens to young people.
Jamal has one regret in his young life – he didn’t save the life of his close friend Quincy – Q – Barrantes when the young man drowned. They had once shared everything, from college plans to a love for Jauncy, a digital comedy program that obsessed their teenage years. Even as he tries to move on with his life, with his girlfriend Autumn and his pregnant sister Whit by his side, Jamal is haunted by Q’s memory, struggling under the weight of his grief and guilt over something that came between them prior to Q’s death. Q was inadvertently involved in the deaths of Jamal’s parents, and Jamal subsequently ignored Q’s pain when his father passed. In the wake of all three tragedies, Jamal has become adept at pushing others away and indulging in the local party scene.
Then medical science intervenes. There’s a new sort of medical treatment which can reanimate the dead for a brief period of nineteen days. While the dead person has no idea that they had ever died and may even display altered personalities without careful intervention, their living friends and relatives have another few days to cherish with them. Q’s mom chooses to reanimate her son, leading Jamal to try to repair the rift between them without revealing that Q has died – and soon will die again.
Early Departures is a powerful character study with a sci-fi gleam, a wonderful sense of personality and a completely fresh and original voice.
It’s a book about two things: the way grief can weigh a person down to the point of shapeshifting their emotions and identity, and the importance of embracing life. Jamal learns to overcome much and especially do the latter as he comes of age in the wake of Q’s death and second life. It’s a fascinating journey that’s both surrealistic and bracingly grounded.
The book has a lot of stylish prose, and its minimalism has great purpose and liveliness that make it amazing. There’s something thrilling and unique about its sparseness that grips the reader. The poetry of grief and the lusty power of life are given equal weight in a beautiful yet prosaic way.
All of the characters are memorable in their own way – from Q’s emotional mom to funny Whit. We get a few doctor types from the hospital thrown into the mix as well, and they contribute nicely to the story as a whole..
There are two central relationships here – Q and Jamal’s intensely close friendship-turned-conflict and Jamal’s relationship with Autumn, which is complicated by Jamal’s sense of loss, which constantly forces him to push her away. Both relationships are given equal weight, with room left for Q’s mom to process her feelings about her son’s death and Whit’s strong bond with Jamal to take some narrative space.
My only real criticism of the piece is that I felt as though Whit could have pulled a little bit more narrative weight. I like what she got to do in the book, but I wanted more of her. But that’s only a small bobble.
Early Departures will cause teenagers to dream and to feel seen and understood at the same time, especially if they’ve experienced a death in their lives. It’s a moving, enriching and rewarding experience that’s absolutely worthwhile for them and adults alike.