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