Review: The Revenant (audiobook)

Book Review The Revenant audiobookWelcome to my first audiobook review! The Revenant by Michael Punke is also the first review I’ve done here that’s not a romance, but that’ll happen every now and then.

I’ll confess, I purchased this audiobook for Elliott as he and I were taking an eight hour drive to Melbourne. I didn’t think he’d be particularly interested in one of my girly reads, and the last time we’d made the drive we listened part of The Short History of Nearly Everything, which was awesome but heavy.

The Revenant had been in the news and I was determined to read (or listen) to the book first.

Anyway I thought it was an excellent idea. Instead we listened to both seasons of the podcast Serial—if you haven’t subscribed to that yet, get on it—so it wasn’t until I had started my new job, and was taking long walks every lunch hour, that I managed to get started on the novel that spawned the movie that finally got Leo an Oscar.

This is not the kind of book that I read often. But I loved it—both the story and the audio component.

The Revenant moves slowly, which is to be expected in a novel that can go scene upon scene with out any dialogue. The drowsy pace reflects the long and laborious journeys of the lead characters—and the experience of listening to the book felt equally wandering-like.

This was emphasised by the slow Southern drawl of the narrator. I’m glad I don’t listen to audiobooks before bed, or I’m certain I would have fallen asleep. Instead it was a 30 minute break in the middle of a busy day, and a 30 minute walk and the end that caused me to switch off from the tension and energy of deadline-driving work environment. I found it meditative, excellent for my mental health—time will tell if all audiobooks have this effect.

If you haven’t read the right book it might seem strange to hear me say that I was engaged with this book using all my senses, but Punke’s description is that good. Take this paragraph for example:

“Only the tops of the highest buttes held a grip on the few rays of sunlight. As Glass watched, even those were extinguished. It was an interlude that he held as sacred as Sabbath, the brief segue between the light of day and the dark of night. The retreating sun drew with it the harshness of the plain. Howling winds ebbed, replaced by an utter stillness that seemed impossible for a vista so grand. The colors too were transformed. Stark daytime hues blended and blurred, softened by a gentle wash of ever darkening purples and blues. It was a moment for reflection in a space so vast it could only be divine. And if Glass believed in a god, surely it resided in this great western expanse. Not a physical presence, but an idea, something beyond man’s ability to comprehend, something larger.”

I almost feel like leaving this review there—coming on the heels of such writing is uncomfortable, but I’ll persist long enough to touch on what made this such and incredible story—beyond the exceptional writing.

This was a story of the darker side of human nature—a real departure from the romance I usually read. This wasn’t about love; it wasn’t even about hope in the way that many novels with darker themes are. It was about revenge, self-interest, hatred, regret, failure, despair.

Normally I’d find that hard to read, but it was so compelling because despite the completely fantastical circumstances, the characters were completely relatable. I found myself cheering them on despite their very gruesome intentions and couldn’t help but wonder—would I do the exact same thing?

That, I think, is the heart of what made this novel so gripping. It was as close to pitting myself against the elements as I’m ever going to get. With each new plot twist I imagined myself in the situation (made possible by the excellent world-building).

The use of omniscient narrator, and the seemingly random changes of point of view and flashbacks, prevented me from suspending disbelief entirely. In the way that Brecht wanted the audience to stay conscious of the fact they were an audience, I felt Punke wanted the reader not to get lost, because to be aware is to be able to question. And that is what connected me with the characters—the belief that in the same circumstances, I would do the same thing.

The Revenant is a masterpiece of storytelling, and I highly recommend it even for those that prefer lighter fare. I haven’t seen the movie yet, so I can’t say if that’s a good, shorter alternative to the 10 hours I spent listening to the story but I found it a great novel for my first audio book.

I’m also pretty gutted that it doesn’t look like there’s another book on its way any time soon. The Revenant was published in 2002, and actually went out of print for a few years before the story got picked up by Hollywood. Punke is the deputy United States Trade Representative and the United States ambassador to the World Trade Organization. I’m not sure how much time that role leaves for writing, or if he’s even allowed to (he wasn’t allowed to do any interviews or be involved in anyway with the film adaptation of his work). If that is the case, it’s a damn shame.

Until next week (where I’ll return to the world of romance…)

From the back cover:

A thrilling tale of betrayal and revenge set against the nineteenth-century American frontier, the astonishing story of real-life trapper and frontiersman Hugh Glass

The year is 1823, and the trappers of the Rocky Mountain Fur Company live a brutal frontier life. Hugh Glass is among the company’s finest men, an experienced frontiersman and an expert tracker. But when a scouting mission puts him face-to-face with a grizzly bear, he is viciously mauled and not expected to survive. Two company men are dispatched to stay behind and tend to Glass before he dies. When the men abandon him instead, Glass is driven to survive by one desire: revenge. With shocking grit and determination, Glass sets out, crawling at first, across hundreds of miles of uncharted American frontier. Based on a true story, The Revenant is a remarkable tale of obsession, the human will stretched to its limits, and the lengths that one man will go to for retribution.

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