My gut reaction to this book: "Wow, this guy spent a lot of time figuring out to how to describe things."
Maybe it's a shallow statement, especially coming from a writer, but it's true. Revenant made me think about how literary fiction tends to put more emphasis on lyrical descriptions than other genres. And along with that, you get all these characters that are apparently not only observant, but verbose in their observations. A certain amount of description is necessary in any book; literary fiction runs the risk of introducing so many trite phrases that the book becomes a bundle of intense adjectives connected by some common nouns, populated by characters who apparently all have English degrees.
Revenant succeeds in presenting the same scenes differently from the perspectives of different characters. Quantity of lyrical descriptions aside, Tristan Hughes does establish a distinct voice for each of Neil, Ricky, and Steph. So when any two of them described the same scene, it would be laced with different prejudices, different assumptions, and different observations. Neil saw Mr. Jones in a sympathetic light while Ricky viewed him as an arrogant, shambling old man. This is something that really intrigued me and kept me reading even when the book felt slow.
Part of that slowness is an endemic quality owing to the book's setting and themes. Taking place on a small Welsh island, Revenant is retrospective and introspective. It's has very little action, and the action that does take place is motivated by internal conflict more than any external force. Any substance in the book comes from those conflicts, and from how the characters work through them as individuals, alone. (Because none of these people talk. They just don't. They spend the entire book not talking.)
Childhood can be traumatic, and Revenant captures that feeling perfectly. It has a traumatic event, yes, but it's also the way in which the characters, who are now adults, look back on their childhood in general. With distance between the past and the present, the characters pass judgement and form conscious opinions as to how their childhood influenced their lives. Now they've come together after years apart, years that have changed them, and we see them try to finally come to terms with that trauma.
There's plenty of observations the characters make that I found valid. I especially enjoyed Ricky's reflections on how time doesn't diminish the feeling of intimacy between truly good friends—ten years ago can feel like ten hours ago between good friends. Some of the observations feel a little too valid, as if the characters have been moulded into certain mindsets and told what people whom they represent would say a certain thing. Again, Ricky, as the wandering, unfulfilled adult who never quite grew into maturity, fits this description.
We never do get much detail on what the characters were doing between childhood and the present-day part of the book. Neil stayed on the island; Steph presumably went to the mainland. Ricky was "away." This gap in the narrative lends itself to the characters as representatives of types of people rather than actual persons, something that mars the otherwise poignant microcosm that Hughes creates on this island. The characters are mouthpieces, not people, and every time I read a book like that, I get a sudden desire to pick up something by John Irving. There's a man who knows how to weave emotional truth into a fulfilling story and create real, living characters.
Revenant is an origami piece of a story: beautiful but fragile. It's an interesting execution of the same old ideas and themes that we see in retrospects of one's childhood, to the point that I'd almost say the themes are executed too well. It's skilfully and exquisitely written but doesn't take any thematic risks, choosing instead to play it safe.