Review: The Retreat, Alison Moore

SALT Publishing, 2021

Since childhood, Sandra Peters has been fascinated by the small, private island of Lieloh, home to the reclusive silent-film star Valerie Swanson. Having dreamed of going to art college, Sandra is now in her forties and working as a receptionist, but she still harbours artistic ambitions. When she sees an advert for a two-week artists’ retreat on Lieloh, Sandra sets out on what might be a life-changing journey. 

Since reading Alison Moore’s Man Booker shortlisted novel, The Lighthouse, and subsequently her collection, The Pre-War House and Other Stories, her work has drawn me in with its tight prose and an unnerving sense of foreboding. She has a gift for honing in on fine detail, memory and doubt, creating a sinister unease. There is tension even in the simplest of details and a layered story, where realities shift and doubt creeps in. An other worldliness fills her writing in a way that leaves you questioning and searching for what might be and what might not.

“Sandra wants to be inspired, just like Angie was inspired by the chapel and wrote that poem that everyone said was beautiful. She wants to paint something that she can be proud of, something the others will admire, something she could bear to hand on a wall.”

A sense of isolation is created so well in the mind of Sandra, a thread that runs through many of her characters and books. In The Retreat, this is thrown into the fore as the chapters alternate between what is going on in the mind of Sandra against a narrative that weaves in the actions of the other characters, some of whom the reader will begin to detest. She writes with subtlety, each sentence punching with the weight of a skilled storyteller.

“Carol had understood that the students had arranged to shoot the whole film on the island, sleeping in the house, which had running water and electricity and so on – but something had not worked out, although Carol is not clear what that something was.”

As the chapters shift between Carol, who is alone in a seemingly haunted house on another island and trying to write a novel, and Sandra, who becomes increasingly ostracised by the other artists in the sparse house that they are staying in for an artists’ retreat, many of Carol and Sandra’s thoughts repeat and expand, reflecting the minds of introverts that Moore cleverly creates. You feel an increasing sense of disconnect and longing in Sandra, as she walks to a spot each day to paint the island where Carol is staying, at one point finding someone else in her spot. You expect, and almost hope, the two will meet.

“She wonders what the hell she is doing here, naked at night on the rocks; she is no longer sure that she wants to jump, but she is here now, and she will do it.”

So much of the power of this novella lies in the details: the missing glove, the disregard of Sandra’s needs by her fellow artists, the sounds that Carol hears in the night, the misplaced objects in both of their realities. It’s a gripping book that I read in one sitting on the day that it arrived! Moore creates something that leaves you trying to grasp what is just out of reach. The weight of the story will resonate with you far beyond the end of the pages.

Alison Moore’s short stories have been published in various magazines, journals and anthologies, including Best British Short Stories and Best British Horror, and broadcast on BBC Radio. The title story of her first collection, The Pre-War House, won the New Writer Novella Prize; her second collection, Eastmouth and Other Stories, will be published in autumn 2022.

Her first novel, The Lighthouse, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and the National Book Awards, winning the McKitterick Prize. Both The Lighthouse and her second novel, He Wants, were Observer Books of the Year. She recently published her fifth novel, The Retreat, and a trilogy for children, beginning with Sunny and the Ghosts.

Born in Manchester in 1971, she lives in a village on the Leicestershire-Nottinghamshire border with her husband, son and cat. She is an honorary lecturer in the School of English at the University of Nottingham and a member of the National Association of Writers in Education.

Find her at https://www.alison-moore.com

Review: A Passage North, Anuk Arudpragasam

“The present, we assume is eternally before us, one of the few things in life from which we cannot be parted. It overwhelms us in the painful first moments of entry into the world, when it is still too new to be managed or negotiated, remains by our side during childhood and adolescence, in those years before the weight of memory and expectation…”

The opening lines of Anuk Arudpragasam’s stunning book, A Passage North, Longlisted for the Booker Prize, draws us into a world of post civil was Sri Lanka, capturing the suffering through Tamil narrator, Krishan. The story begins with a call to let him know that his grandmother’s former carer, Rani, has died unexpectedly. He is also grappled with a recent email from a lost love, Anjum, an activist he met in Delhi four years previously.

As Krishan journeys by train from Colombo to the Northern Province for the funeral, he begins a journey through his own soul. The story is beautifully written, with flowing sentences that weave the reader through his thoughts and longings. A Passage North is a memory of the lost, the missing and the dead, casting a light on the ravages of war through the eyes of Krishan, a PhD student, living in Delhi as he watches the news unfold in 2009.

The book is meditative, a stream of consciousness in some respects, and an illustration of the impact of the connections we make and how it affects the human psyche when they are lost. Inspiration for the rhythm and style of the book is taken from Thomas Bernhard and Javier Marias.

What struck me most, was Arudpragasam’s insight into the way that men can intimidate women through a gaze or certain body language…

“In Delhi and many of the Hindi-speaking states more generally male stares were different, were intensely unselfconscious and intensely unrelenting, so that even when you weren’t being harassed in more explicit verbal or physical ways you still had to use all of your psychological resources to resist these gazes in the course of each day, to prevent these men from trying to enter your soul through your eyes, like strangers who enter the privacy of your house without permission and without even bothering to take off their shoes.”

The sensitivity with which he tackles the subject of Anjun’s sexuality in a culturally oppressive environment, is both powerful and subtle.

I would liken the book in some ways to being lost inside a painting, a weaving of colours and shapes. If you enjoy literary fiction, I highly recommend this. It’s slow in pace, so don’t expect snappy twists and turns, but if you want a journey into Tamil culture and an insight into love and loss through the ravages of war, this won’t disappoint.

Arudpragasam is a bright, insightful writer, with much to share from his internal world. The sentences are sharply observed and intensely hypnotic. It will be interesting to see how it fares as the shortlist is put together. A compelling and thought-provoking read.

Review: The Children Act, Ian McEwan

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Fiona Maye is a leading High Court judge, presiding over cases in the family court. She is renowned for her fierce intelligence, exactitude and sensitivity. But her professional success belies private sorrow and domestic strife. There is the lingering regret of her childlessness, and now, her marriage of thirty years is in crisis.

At the same time, she is called on to try an urgent case: for religious reasons, a beautiful seventeen-year-old boy, Adam, is refusing the medical treatment that could save his life, and his devout parents share his wishes. Time is running out. Should the secular court overrule sincerely held faith? In the course of reaching a decision Fiona visits Adam in hospital – an encounter which stirs long-buried feelings in her and powerful new emotions in the boy. Her judgment has momentous consequences for them both.

Difficult to summarise, or to review, McEwan’s book (his 13th novel) draws on his personal experience with the family courts during a difficult divorce and custody battle in the 1990s. He had an uncomfortable interruption at the Cheltenham Literary Festival this year when his ex-wife began shouting about the injunction, which was placed forbidding her to speak about the case. This awkwardness and emotional turmoil is brought out painfully but carefully in the book: the sense of uncertainty and betrayal is beautifully illustrated, touching on emotions of difficulty in all of our lives. His ability to translate the complexities of emotion, and especially the difficulties of vulnerability in relationships, never fails to hold my attention. The novella, On Chesil Beach, was one of his most powerful books, in my opinion, and he uses the same mood, painting a landscape of fear and abandonment. One of the aspects of McEwan’s writing that I most admire is his ability get inside the mind of a character at their most vulnerable. He poses questions in his fiction that might otherwise be difficult to voice.

The main event in the story centres around a seventeen (nearly eighteen year old) son of a Jehovah’s Witness couple. The significance of his age and of the closeness to his eighteenth birthday becomes apparent as we get deeper into the story. The book covers themes of religion, personal faith and human rights law, and the legal aspect of the book was really interesting. Without showing much bias, he forces the reader to come to their own conclusions about the right or wrong or the family’s belief systems, and raises questions about how or why we come to the various and necessary decisions in our lives. I felt for each character for different reasons, and am left with a sense of having lived the lives of many of the characters.