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.
David Bergen’s fifth novel, The Retreat, is set in the 1970’s during a particularly turbulent time in Canadian history. The Ojibway Warriors Society had taken a militant stand at Anicinabe Park, which caused racial tension to erupt. A local Ojibway boy, Raymond, has been involved with the daughter of a local police officer, the result of this leads Raymond to be cruelly abandoned on a island to make his own way home, or not. Needless to say, Raymond does make it back safely, but the experience has changed him.
A year later, the Byrd family, at the insistence of the mother, arrive to stay at a local Retreat known for it’s spiritual healing. Both of the parents are very into the idea of living on the commune, but the Byrd children are pretty much left to find their own entertainment. Lizzy, daughter to the Byrd’s, meets up with Raymond and they begin to develop a relationship. And the rest of the story is based around the troubles they will encounter as a couple.
The Retreat was an entertaining read, that shows Bergen as a very talented writer. His characters are very clearly developed, Raymond in particular was a fantastic character with emotions that really came across as fitting. In terms of characters, however, I felt like I would have enjoyed this story much more if it had centred more fully upon Raymond. Because of the Ojibway Occupation I think his perspective would have been much more powerful than of the visiting Lizzy Byrd, who at times was annoyingly simplistic.
What makes this book most enjoyable is the writing, and the small descriptions of normal things that made me remember the feeling associated with certain actions. A very good example of this is from the beginning of the novel, after Raymond if left on the island he becomes very cold, “He was shaking severely. He pressed his hands between his thighs and blew warm breath down the inside of his jacket.” This brought back memories of sitting, shivering, at a school bus-stop on cold winter mornings, everyone hunched over, faces down in our collars, hands between knees, trying to get even a little feel of warmth. I love writing that has the power make these types of personal connections.
About The Author
David Bergen’s award-winning fiction includes The Case of Lena S., winner of the Carol Shields Winnipeg Book Award and a finalist for the Governor General’s Award, and The Time in Between, winner of the Scotiabank Giller Prize, the McNally Robinson Book of the Year Award, and the Margaret Laurence Award for Fiction. It was also named a Kiriyama Prize Notable Book and longlisted for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. A member of the 2007 Scotiabank Giller Prize jury, Bergen lives in Winnipeg.
Published by McClelland & Stewart
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