Thursday, November 06, 2008

book review: "the retreat"*

Reading The Retreat by David Bergen was good for me, in the way experiences that provoke and make you uncomfortable can be good for you.

But it was hard going.

Even at the outset, the reader is aware that the story will end in tragedy (and not just because it says so on the dust jacket). From the very first page, the sense of foreboding is almost oppressive. And on several occasions, I had to put it down and take a few deep breaths, so intense was my discomfort.

From the book's jacket:

In 1973, outside of Kenora, Ontario, Raymond Seymour, an eighteen-year-old Ojibway boy, is taken by a local policeman to a remote island and left for dead.

A year later, the Byrd family arrives in Kenora. They have come to stay at “the Retreat,” a commune run by the self-styled guru Doctor Amos. The Doctor is an enigmatic man who spouts bewildering truisms, and who bathes naked every morning in the pond at the edge of the Retreat while young Everett Byrd watches from the bushes. Lizzy, the eldest of the Byrd children, cares for her younger brothers Fish and William, and longs for what she cannot find at the Retreat. When Lizzy meets Raymond, everything changes, and Lizzy comes to understand the real difference between Raymond’s world and her own. A tragedy and a love story, the novel moves towards a conclusion that is both astonishing and heartbreaking.

Set during the summer of the Ojibway occupation of Anicinabe Park in Kenora, The Retreat is a finely nuanced, deeply felt novel that tells the story of the complicated love between a white girl and a native boy, and of a family on the verge of splintering forever. It is also a story of the bond between two brothers who were separated in childhood, and whose lives and fates intertwine ten years later.
The book is beautifully written, filled with complex, believable, interesting and unhappy characters. Woven throughout are the twin themes of betrayal and existence (there are multiple references to the way other characters treat Raymond as though he is invisible and his own need to "verify his own existence."

I most affected by the scenes involving Raymond and I found myself becoming almost frantic as I read about his attempts at survival after being abandoned on the island, as the snow begins to fall:
"He scraped together some moss and laid it down in the hole, and then he curled up in the shallow dip and covered himself up with more moss. He was shaking severely. He pressed his hands between his thighs and blew warm breath down the inside of his jacket...In the grey light he finally started a fire...he warmed his hands and feet and bent towards the flames like a requester who sees the possibility of salvation but is too abject too cry out."

I found Bergen's description here to be quite vivid and made all the more poignant by the fact that Canada has a shameful history of this sort of occurrence and that more than one such instance has ended in tragedy.

I can't say that I enjoyed The Retreat. It did however, move me profoundly. I will remember it longer than many books I have enjoyed and read with much more ease.

*This is book was sent to me via Library Thing's Early Reviewer Program.

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