The Retreat opens with a sequence of events that sets the ominous tone for what is to come. In 1973, Raymond Seymour, an 18-year-old native from outside Kenora, Ontario, is dating a girl who happens to be the niece of local constable Earl Hart. When she and Raymond violate Hart’s demand that they stop seeing each other, the constable abandons Raymond on a local island where he languishes for nine days with no food or shelter before being picked up by a passing barge. The malevolence of Hart’s intent is clear, and a shaken Raymond will not cross him again by publicizing the details of his abduction once he gets to safety.
The story then fast-forwards a year. The Byrd family has driven from Calgary to Kenora, where they are to spend the summer at the Retreat: a vaguely communal compound with an unctuous leader who has taken on the spurious title of “Doctor.” The four Byrd children are loath to go, but cajoled by their father, Lewis, who reminds them that the aim of the holiday is to revive the spirits of their mother, who suffers from a condition somewhere between post-partum depression and garden-variety solipsism.
Bergen has always been drawn to the world of adolescents, particularly those left to pick up the pieces when adults fall off the rails: Ada from Giller-winning The Time in Between and Mason from The Case of Lena S. are prime examples. Here, it is17-year-old Lizzy who becomes the default caregiver to her three younger siblings as their mother soothes herself in the arms of the libidinous Doctor. Lewis witnesses his wife’s indiscretions, but, eager to keep the peace, does nothing about them. En route to the Reatreat, he attempts to teach his children an object lesson in life’s harsh realities by drowning an unwanted litter of kittens (the killing of animals being a recurring motif in Bergen novels). But the act succeeds only in dismaying the children, and proves to be the last time Lewis ever takes charge of events, his God-playing, in retrospect, coming across as weak and contemptible.
Raymond reappears, this time as a chicken-deliverer to the Retreat. Lizzy observes him in the background at the Doctor’s social events, which he attends with no obvious enthusiasm. Attracted to what she assumes is his self-assurance, she starts inviting herself along on his deliveries. They enter into a relationship that Bergenesquely entails sex, but not quite ardour. Raymond’s taciturnity allows Lizzy to conjure up romantic notions about him that have a tenuous footing in reality.
Lizzy begins to make regular visits to the remote cabin where Raymond lives, hermit-like, with his more volatile brother Nelson, who has returned home after having being forced to live with a Mennonite family in Manitoba for ten years. Raymond eventually tells Lizzy the story of the events leading up to his ordeal on the island, knowledge she unwisely blurts out to another local cop who works with Earl Hart. It is at this point that we know things will not end well for Raymond — which they don’t — the “how” of the thing being the novel’s spoiler.
The Retreat carries over many of the themes and preoccupations of Bergen’s other four novels. In Bergen, women, particularly mothers, can be shameless philanderers, while men tend to be emasculated or cuckolded. Here, Lewis takes this role, as does Harris, a wheelchair-bound writer trapped in a relationship with his indifferent wife and the German lover who is their constant companion. Harris is physically powerless but still tries to manipulate others, a quality that makes him reminiscent of Mr. Ferry, the blind character to whom Mason reads in The Case of Lena S.
Bergen’s trademark prurience is here in spades. One might assume that his interest in adolescents is based on a profound empathy for their generalized, omnivorous sexuality. As elsewhere in his work, he dwells obsessively on the allure of body parts presented out of context: the hollows behind knees and collarbones, veins in arms, small breasts. His characters are usually thin. Women often have long legs and wear short skirts that make them suddenly feel self-conscious. Sex bleeds uncomfortably into the relationships between family members, although never to the point of outright incest. Children voyeuristically observe their parents’ peccadilloes, siblings are unusually close, and a scent or piece of clothing may recall children to their parents during a sexual act.
This is a novel that expands the quantity but perhaps not the quality of the Bergen oeuvre. Nearly all writers revisit themes in their work, and the deepening of their explorations is one of the reasons readers return to them. Bergen’s mercilessly ascetic style, however, sometimes works against him in this regard by putting the onus on the storytelling, and thus subjecting the content — with its many iterations — to greater scrutiny. Readers new to Bergen will likely enjoy this book, which expertly builds tension even when the conclusion may seem foregone. Long-time devotees, on the other hand, may find it hard to shake a sense of déjà vu: a feeling that the writing is teetering just on the cusp of formula. Bergen has proven he can do subdued melancholy, but to move to the next level he needs some fresh themes and to move his prose beyond the role of mere scaffolding.
— Emily Donaldson