Book Review: The Revenant by Michael Punke

Genre: Thriller, Historical Fiction
Publishing Info: The Borough Press (2015) – Originally by Carroll & Graf (2002)
Pages: 308

Back Cover Summary:

Hugh Glass isn’t afraid to die. He’s done it once already.

When expert tracker Glass is viciously mauled by a bear, death seems inevitable. The two men ordered to remain with him flee, stripping him of his rifle and hatchet and leaving him to die alone. But soon a grim, horribly scarred figure is seen wandering, asking after two men, one with a gun that seems too good for him…

Michael Punke’s The Revenant, based on the life story of the early 19th century US fur trapper Hugh Glass, is a tense and exciting read that is at its best when the narrative directly explores the character’s journey and doesn’t get bogged down too much by historical details.

Punke’s historical fiction novel is based on the life of Hugh Glass, a wandering fur trapper and hunter who was best known for being attacked by a grizzly bear and left for dead without a weapon by those looking over him, however survived and set out across the wilderness to gain retribution against those who wronged him. A surprising amount of ‘The Revenant’ is based on fact, or at least based on the well known parts of Glass’s story, and these are among the most successful parts of this novel. The bear attack and subsequent abandonment in the middle of dangerous territory is very powerful as it contains virtually no speaking (Glass’s attack leaves his vocal chords damaged) but instead contains a multitude of effective description on injuries and setting. When Glass is by himself during the attack, the recovery and the pursuit across mountains and along rivers, the writing is at its strongest because readers get a genuine sense of the character’s emotions and strength of will. This is what makes the opening couple of pages, where the readers are thrown into the heart of the story at the moment the dying man was abandoned, so successful as an opening. The last paragraph of this is my favourite part of the whole book and utilises the key themes of the book in a few powerful words.

Marshaling his strength, he rolled heavily to his stomach. He felt the snap of a suture breaking and the warm wetness of new blood on his back. The pain diluted to nothing against the tide of his rage.

“Hugh Glass began to crawl.”

In the Historical Notes section that followed the main text, I noted the fact that the character of John Fitzgerald, the antagonist, was largely created by the author. In reality, there was a Fitzgerald who abandoned a near-death Glass but very little is known about his backstory. I would be surprised, except Fitzgerald’s characterisation and backstory does feel constructed to be the antagonist, compared to characters who are based in fact. (I didn’t even mind that Punke based the youthful ‘Bridges’ off the famed mountain explorer Jim Bridger). The court scene at the climax of the book, another constructed event, also felt a bit wrong compared to the general tone, and it would have been preferable to have a more honest and raw event to close the narrative, even if the result was the same. Fictional characters, such as the two parties of French and American men who helped Glass to reach their destination, were too plentiful, as one group could have been cut out to avoid having a deja-vu feeling to some of the chapters. In short, characters and narratives based more on the life of Hugh Glass were stronger than those that were part or fully fictional.

There are a couple of interesting features included in the writing style that I wanted to draw attention to, the most notable being how the author tried to include as much information about the social and economic nature of the harsh environment that Hugh Glass and his contemporaries survived (or didn’t survive) in. Every backstory was filled with little details of the types of goods ships used to bring in from other cities, the activities one could partake in when in these places, and references to people and places that Glass did not come into contact with during the novel’s narrative. Add to that the fact that the chapters are dated, as though Glass was writing his own personal memoirs, and you feel like you are reading a history book just as much as you are reading a powerful story of survival. The world -building feels very good, though it is surprising how much of this book is dedicated to descriptions of this sort, considering its relatively short length. Personally, it would have been preferential for myself to have read more about Glass’s mission as he struggled across the wilds of the US than this, but at the same time I appreciate how much research must have gone into creating a world that tries to be as accurate as it can be.

Michael Punke’s The Revenant is best enjoyed as an exciting story of survival and revenge as a man ventures across the wilderness of the US to track down those who abandoned him to die, with the most powerful writing coming in the opening chapters of the book. The attention to detail in Punke’s descriptions of the historical setting is also appreciated, but not when it ends up filling a great deal of the novel that could have been used to add events and encounters to Hugh Glass’s journey. It was an enjoyable read that will have you flicking the pages to see whether Glass survives and finds those who abandoned him.

Star Rating: 3.5/5

Have you read The Revenant before? If so, leave a comment with what was the best part of the novel for you.

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