A boy, missing for four years, returns. Is it as simple as a dream come true or the beginning of another kind of nightmare?

There are no easy answers in Bret Anthony Johnston’s Remember Me Like This, a remarkable debut novel from the award-winning and widely published author of Corpus Christi: Stories.

Johnston, the director of creative writing at Harvard University, grew up in a South Texas not too different from the Campbell family’s fictive Southport, about an hour away from Corpus.

After elder son Justin disappeared at age 11, his family members developed various means of dealing with ambiguous loss: Father Eric has a tepid affair with a surgeon’s wife. Mother Laura volunteers under her maiden name for the graveyard shift at a dolphin rescue. Between bouts of posting flyers around town, younger brother Griff relentlessly skates a drained motel pool and grandfather Cecil, the ex-con, maintains his pawn brokerage’s inventory with special attention to the gun case. Some days their threadlike hope barely survives the hot breeze.

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“Whoever believed hope was a gift had never lost a son,” writes Johnston, channeling Laura.

The narrative shifts to accommodate the inner thoughts of each remaining family member. They are complicated, conflicted—guilty. “If they ever found him alive, Eric knew Justin would be so altered by the trauma that he’d bear no resemblance to the boy who’d disappeared. Of course they would accept the changed boy; they’d adopt him, offer up Justin’s room, lend him their son’s name,” he writes.

When Justin is spotted by a flea market vendor, the family’s ability to embrace their boy is put to the test. (The flyers plastered on telephone poles and store windows worked slowly.) They may never know exactly what went on in the apartment of abductor Dwight Buford—and they may not want to.

Johnston ably deals with what most would consider stomach-churning subject matter. “I don’t think it was any more intimidating than any other subject you would take on—or it wasn’t intimidating in the way that you might think,” he says. “I just felt that I needed to ensure that I was following the characters’ lead as opposed to mine. I felt as though I knew, for instance, that readers were going to want to know what explicitly happened to Justin, but it didn’t seem like that had a place in the book. Justin never wanted to talk about it with any of the characters that we see, and I didn’t want to burden him with that.”johnston_cover

Justin unloads his psychological freight off the page (behind the closed door of a police-appointed psychiatrist) and is the only Campbell who doesn’t wrest control of the narrative. “The reason Justin doesn’t have a point of view is because I want the reader to be able to empathize with what the family probably always will struggle with, which is that you don’t really know what’s going on inside Justin’s head,” Johnston says. “You don’t really know what’s going on inside his heart. You’re watching him very closely, taking clues from his smallest movements, and reading into that. I want the reader to feel that distance, that friction, those unanswered questions, the same way his parents, grandfather and little brother do.”

If some questions go unanswered, that’s because they’re unasked. According to Johnston, South Texan mores dictate as much. “To set this story in South Texas and to have them engage each other in any kind of therapy session or anything like that in their home—that simply wouldn’t happen,” he says. “Some of the people who have read the book have kindly suggested that I left that [explicit] material out because I wanted it to be more frightening, but that’s not what it was. We can all guess what has happened to him. The information is in the book. It just comes from different sources.”

Ahead of the annual Shrimporee, where Justin will be given a hero’s welcome, the family learns that Dwight has been paroled. How will Justin react? Will Eric and Cecil remain vigilant or turn vigilante? Will someone else? Johnston incites the reader’s urgent need for answers, satisfied in a surprising way that makes Remember Me Like This virtually unputdownable.

“As a reader and a writer, I’m always looking for the same thing—for the characters or the writing to surprise me. If I don’t think there’s potential for surprise in something I’m writing, I’ll throw the idea away,” Johnston says. “If I don’t think there’s potential for me to be surprised as a reader of a novel, I’ll close the book.”

Megan Labrise is a freelance writer and columnist based in New York. Follow her on Twitter.