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

This One Wild Place Book Launch with Avril Joy

Costa Short Story Award winner, Avril Joy, is both a wonderful writer and a great supporter of authors. We met online some years ago and she endorsed my collection, My Brother was a Kangaroo. Avril is a lovely person and a true creative mind. She invited me to her online launch of this One Wild Place, on 27 October, which was a really inspirational event, filled with readings, questions and discussion and hosted by her publisher, Linen Press.

This new collection of stories from Avril brings together her finest published and unpublished work. From the Costa winning Millie and Bird to the recent A Morning Tide, listed for the Fish Short Memoir Prize, she weaves narratives of hope in the face of loss, transformation and redemption, and the enduring power of love. Combining a poet’s gift for language with a keen naturalist’s eye, she journeys across landscapes from Venice to the East Anglian Fens, from Cape Cod to the shore temples of Mahabalipuram. This One Wild Place, a novella set on a northern hill farm during the pandemic, echoes the mood of the other stories. Moving and poignant it is told with an unerring compassion. She explores first love, families, marriage, childhood, mothering, social class, escape, gardens, birds, seas, tides and stray dogs. These stories are about the wild places we call home.

At the book launch, Avril read beautifully from the beginning of How the River Breaks Your Heart, and from A Morning Tide, her creative memoir, while editor, Lynn Michell, who hosted the event, asked some interesting questions about the connecting themes and issues between her short-form and long-from writing, as well asking Avril what a sense of place means to her as an author, given the strong sense of place within the stories, which are deeply rooted in physical surroundings that are often as important as the characters.

There were recurring themes in her reading, including dogs and water. Her childhood days spent playing near the water on the Somerset Levels, where many people drowned each year, are reflected in her writing. Another strong influence in Avril’s work is her experiences of twenty-five years of working in HM Low Newton, County Durham, as a Prison Governor, where she began teaching and says she, “became deeply involved with the women and their lives, and in many ways that never leaves me. I see it creep in again and again, often through the back door, into what I write.” I am currently reading and am deeply moved by her poetry collection, Going in With Flowers, borne out of her experiences at Low Newton and the lives of the women she met there. Through this collection, Avril gives voice to the lives of the prisoners, exploring through poetry and prose the daily going in through locked gates to meet darkness and pain as well as laughter and hope.

This One Wild Place is set in the time of the pandemic. Lynn asked Avril how Covid influenced the story and her writing. Avril talked about the joy of being able to tuck herself away and immerse herself in her writing, without negating the obvious challenges of the pandemic for many people.

Lynn also raised the issue of the uncanny similarity between Sometimes A River Song and Where the Crawdads Sing. Both have a strong watery backdrop, both have a wild heroine with an unusual narrative voice, both use literacy as the escape route from a patriarchal society. With Where the Crawdads Sing going on to sell 11 million copies and being made into a major film, Lynn asked Avril if it troubles her that Sometimes A River Song has been less in the limelight. Pay cheque disparities aside, Avril highlighted the positive and personal aspects of working with an editor who she has got to know really well, and of working with a small press in terms of her own author input into cover design and other aspects of book publication. Avril has had experience of contracts with larger publishers and says she wouldn’t switch. Lynn is enthusiastic, experienced, personable and is also a writer!

Through her writing, Avril displayed her well honed skill of being able to draw the reader into a world that is entirely unique through her descriptive, lyrical prose. She has a way of describing people and places that leaves you with an understanding of the narrative as much through what is left unsaid as the words written on the page. Her observations and descriptions of the small details are astute and razor-sharp. She clearly has a deep understanding of the human condition, of love and loss, and of what makes people different and similar.

If you haven’t been acquainted with her work, I would highly recommend her writing. You can find her books here.

About Avril: Avril Joy is a short story writer, novelist and poet. Born in Somerset, she has travelled widely in India, Kashmir and Nepal. She was a Prison Governor in a women’s prison in County Durham and was awarded a Butler Trust Travel Award for ‘an outstanding contribution to prison care.’ It was here in 1999 she met the Writer-in-Residence and was inspired to write. Her short fiction has appeared in literary magazines and anthologies, including Victoria Hislop’s, The Story: Love, Loss & the Lives of Women. Her work has been shortlisted in competitions including, the Bridport, the Manchester Prize for Fiction and The Raymond Carver Short Story Prize in the USA. In 2012 she won the inaugural Costa Short Story Award. Her latest novel, Sometimes a River Song, published by Linen Press, won the 2017 People’s Book Prize. In 2019 her poem Skomm won first prize in the York Literary Festival Competition. She posts regularly on her blog http://www.avriljoy.com/

About Linen Press: Linen Press is a small, independent publisher run by women, for women. They are the only indie women’s press in the Uk and encourage and promote women writers, giving a voice to a wide range of perspectives and themes that are relevant to women. Linen Press rejoices in the differences in female creative voices, publishing books that are diverse, challenging, and surprising. The collective background of writers is a multi-coloured patchwork of cultures, countries, ages and writing styles.

Established in 2005.

Finalist 2015 Women In Publishing Pandora Award.

Shortlisted 2019 Most Innovative Publisher Saboteur Awards.



#bookaday One With A Blue Cover: On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan

chesil beach

 

It is July 1962. Edward and Florence, young innocents married that morning, arrive at a hotel on the Dorset coast. At dinner in their rooms they struggle to suppress their private fears of the wedding night to come…

This is really all that’s needed for a book description of this gem of a novella, written by one of my favourite modern writers. It is a sensitively written but devastating portrayal of sexual awkwardness between a newly married couple staying in a pokey hotel in Dorset.

“This is how the entire course of a life can be changed – by doing nothing.”

These haunting words give you an idea of how McEwan plays with your emotions. His descriptions draw you in to the minds of the characters, Florence in particular, and her silence leaves you wanting to change the course of their lives. Her paralysis is partly what makes it work. The ending left me with a deep sadness. I don’t think a book has ever worked on my emotions in quite the same way. A huge feat of narrative genius.