Book Review: The Revenant by Sonia Gensler

Mixing genres can be a risky business, but Sonia Gensler proves she is a master literary chef with her debut novel, The Revenant — a sweeping historic thriller, with elements of your classic ghost story and Victorian romance.

The Revenant tells the story of 17-year-old Willie, who runs away from a home she can’t fit in with, and assumes a stolen identity to become a teacher at the Cherokee Female Seminary. But life in Indian Territory is not like anything Willie expected. She struggles to teach students who come from wealthier backgrounds than her own, while also fighting a growing attraction to one of the young men from the neighboring boys’ school. Then there’s the troubling matter of strange happenings that everyone else believes are linked to the ghost of a student who drowned in the river the year before. Willie’s not so quick to believe in ghosts, but as more strange (and increasingly perilous) events begin to transpire, even she can’t deny that something nefarious is at work.

What struck me so much about The Revenant is how Gensler stays so true to her characters and the time period in which the story is set. As a modern reader, it’s tempting to want your characters to just “go for it,” but in a book that takes place in 1896, there are societal expectations that just can’t be ignored. Gensler brilliantly stays true to the historical aspects of her setting, while at the same time building complex and dynamic relationships between her characters. She is a master of the Victorian courtship, and every stolen whisper and light touch of the hand is imbued with as much chemistry and sexual tension as that infamous “leg hitch” scene in Eclipse — so much so that you forget how chaste the interaction really is.

Gensler also brilliantly weaves in the history of the Cherokee Seminary School without once sacrificing an element of the story. Little bits of fact are sewn into the text seamlessly, offering a world that is all the more vivid for her efforts. Willie’s experiences simply wouldn’t be the same without such a lush historic backdrop as the one Gensler provides.

What’s more, her characters are multi-faceted and engaging. Not only does Willie have an intriguing story, but so does Eli — that mysterious young man from the boys’ school; Dr. Stewart, the charming young widower; Olivia, Willie’s fellow teacher and confidant; and even Fannie, the student who seems out to get her teacher at any cost. Not one character falls into the trappings of caricature or stereotype. In truth, Gensler could easily write a library of companion novels to The Revenant, each one chronicling the stories of these other interesting characters.

The Revenant is in stores tomorrow, June 14th, and will also be featured as our July Book of the Month.

Here is the official synopsis:

When Willie arrives in Indian Territory, she knows only one thing: no one can find out who she really is. To escape a home she doesn’t belong in anymore, she assumes the name of a former classmate and accepts a teaching job at the Cherokee Female Seminary.

Nothing prepares her for what she finds there. Her pupils are the daughters of the Cherokee elite—educated and more wealthy than she, and the school is cloaked in mystery. A student drowned in the river last year, and the girls whisper that she was killed by a jealous lover. Willie’s room is the very room the dead girl slept in. The students say her spirit haunts it.

Willie doesn’t believe in ghosts, but when strange things start happening at the school, she isn’t sure anymore. She’s also not sure what to make of a boy from the nearby boys’ school who has taken an interest in her—his past is cloaked in secrets. Soon, even she has to admit that the revenant may be trying to tell her something. . . .


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