The Retreat, by Alison Moore, is a gloriously mischievous study of human interactions and behaviour when a group of six strangers come together on a small island for an artistic retreat. Alongside this tale is the parallel story of a writer who takes up an offer to stay alone on an island, that she may finish the novel she has been trying to complete for many years. Moore’s trademark undercurrents of foreboding shadow both storylines adding to the interest and tension. The sea surrounded setting is as much a character as the people inhabiting the closed off spaces.
The prologue introduces Sandra who, as a child, holidayed with her family on the island of Liel. From the window of their sea-front hotel, Sandra can see the smaller island of Lieloh, a place that anchors itself in her imagination. Her mother tells her it is privately owned, occupied by Valerie Swanson who was an actress in the era of silent films. Sandra is drawn to the idea of artistic types coming together for lavish parties, mingling in hope of meeting the resident celebrity. Between times Swanson could enjoy the peace and seclusion of her immaculately kept surrounds.
The second story focuses on Carol, a city dwelling short story writer who enjoys the finer things in life. Her friend, Jayne, is concerned when she learns Carol plans to stay alone on a private island, owned by a friend, until the first draft of her long discussed novel is finally complete. Jayne worries that Carol will struggle with the solitude, especially in the big old house where she will live. Carol, however, is determined to proceed.
“She wants to write the novel that for years she has been talking about writing. She wants to appear in window displays. She wants to be translated and read around the world. She wants a Netflix series, or to see her work on the big screen.”
Sandra once harboured a desire to attend art college but took an office job instead as a safer option. With middle age now approaching she wonders if it is too late to nurture what latent artistic talent she may possess. When she spots an advertisement for a fortnight long retreat on Lieloh, she signs up with high expectations.
“Here she is, on her way to live in Valerie Swanson’s house, among artists, in a little community. She imagines them supporting and inspiring one another, fetching vegetables from a kitchen garden, cooking together.”
Despite her best efforts, Sandra struggles to fit into the group that forms seamlessly around her. This is not a new experience – she recognises it from childhood. Sandra is required to share a room with a woman who is messy, offending Sandra’s more ordered habits. She is bossed around by another who expects everyone to follow her house rules.
“she speaks with a confidence that would prompt Sandra’s mother to say, as a disapproving aside, ‘She’s very sure of herself.'”
With no allies, Sandra feels she must acquiesce, trying to quash her simmering resentment. As the days go by she becomes ever more aware of how critically she is being viewed. Decisions are made for her without consultation. Sandra reacts by withdrawing, trying not to care and to focus on her painting. In doing her own thing, making it obvious she has no interest in chosen shared activities, she alienates the group further. Disappointment and loneliness lead to ever more risky undertakings as she tries to salvage her reasons for being on the retreat in the first place.
Carol settles into a routine and makes progress with writing her novel. Around her the old house creaks and groans, taking on a life of its own. The reader may decide if it is her muse or undoing, if her story is one of fantasy or horror.
Given how many writers appear to dream of going on a retreat, some with like minded individuals and others alone, these parallel stories offer both humour and a darker note of caution. They are a reminder that artistic types are all too human, with all this entails. Egos are easily bruised. Talent begs an appreciative audience. Jealousies fester. Those regarded as outsiders may be tolerated but will be kept on the margins. Established cliques have hierarchies and codes of conduct guarded opaquely by those who enjoy their sense of belonging.
As is typical for this author, the writing throughout is taut and spare. Threads are woven together with skilful precision. There is a warmth and depth to the character depictions and to the evocation of place across both storylines. The reader may never fully get to know Sandra, who has obvious flaws, but enough is revealed to garner sympathy. The group’s actions may appear unkind but are not without basis.
Carol’s story provides elements of the uncanny with plenty to unpick around the wisdom of longer term solitude. This is particularly interesting to consider given the years we have just lived through.
A spicy yet understanding take on tribal behaviour, artistic endeavours, and the effects of aspiration, judgement and rejection. Another excellent novel from an author deserving the widest acclaim.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Salt.