Thursday 30 December 2021

Review by Sally Evans of "The Retreat" by Alison Moore

A well-written novel evocative of the imaginary Mediterranean island at its core, I found the story a little difficult to unpack, in that there are two parallel narratives of two different young women visiting the tiny island, one to attend an artists’ retreat, the other to write a novel. The first one introduced is Sandra, whose reality pervades the main story. She is a dithering would-be artist and photographer who pursues a lone quest among the other people on the retreat, who gang up against her and ostracise her, none of them appearing very capable in their own work. Scenes show squabbling over the food, music and entertainment in the house of an evening, while Sandra makes solitary expeditions round the island in daylight. The house has a ghost which never fully reveals itself, as nothing is fully revealed. There's a transience to this story, as Sandra futilely tries to fit in where she cannot.

Carol, the other protagonist, is going to write a novel. I at first guessed that Sandra’s story was the novel Carol was writing, set on the same island to which she was returning, with more of the history of the island and a smaller offshore isle, which Sandra, at the end of her story, tries to reach. There has been a death, we assume Sandra’s, when Carol arrives at the smaller island at the end of the book. 

The novel is about the attraction of place and the desire to record its beauty, whether in writing or art, and about the incompleteness of short associations with place. The boatman, who takes supplies and post to the island, although shadowy, is the only character truly connected to the place. 

I ended with the feeling I ought to know more about Carol. She is introduced in the future tense narrative, telling where she is going, and what she wants to do, then she is shown gradually approaching the island. Both story strands are mainly told in the present tense, apparently simultaneous until Carol reaches the smaller island at the end of Sandra’s adventure. There’s a lot of atmosphere, detail and almost teasing about the plot, a not-quite-stated ghost narrative about a silent film star, who once lived there.  It’s a novel where the work of reaching conclusions is left to the reader. Sandra is beaten; Carol departs in haste, but the long-gone film star remains silent.

About the reviewer
Sally Evans is a bookseller and poet. Her books include The Bees (2008) and Poetic Adventures in Scotland (2014), both from Diehard publishers. She edited Poetry Scotland for 20 years, and is currently studying for a PhD at Lancaster University. Her novel Wildgoose: A Tale of Two Poets was published by Red Squirrel Press in 2021. You can read a review of it on Everybody's Reviewing here

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