David Bergen may not exactly be a household name, but he is fairly well-known in Canadian literary circles for picking up some major awards with his preceding book, The Time In Between It won the major Scotiabank Giller Prize and the McNally Robinson Book of the Year Award, among other lesser achievements.
This time around, however, Bergen missed making the shortlist for the Giller Prize with his most recent book, The Retreat, which came as a mild surprise to some observers in the press. It’s hard to say if the book will pick up any awards, though, as it is one that is hard to pin down.
Readers might feel engaged by the novel, and at the same time that they might feel indifferent to it. It’s a two-faced feeling to be sure. A feeling that does not bode well for awards season.
The book opens up with a short prologue from the point-of-view of a 18-year-old Ojibway boy named Raymond Seymour, who is left for dead by a police officer on an island near the remote town of Kenora, Ontario, during the early ‘70s. His crime? Falling in love with the police officer’s white niece.
From there, the novel moves forward almost one year later, when the white Byrd family of six comes to Kenora to take part in a wilderness retreat lead by a shady doctor. When the eldest daughter, Lizzy, meets Raymond for the first time, sparks fly, as does the question of whether or not history will repeat itself.
The Retreat is a subtle book, so subtle in fact that the characters’ voices tend to all blur into one, despite the detail that most of the major players in the novel get a least one chapter each to narrate their own part of the story. In fact, Bergen offers his own bit of criticism on page 305 of the book when he writes, “He did not understand how something that important could be ended so quickly, with so little excitement, and he wondered if he had been mistaken to be part of it.”
Believe it. Events in the book that might seem monumental, like a small child gone missing, are understated and unexciting. Anything that might pass for excitement only comes about two-thirds of the way into the novel, where there’s a bloody confrontation with a police officer. But even that scene feels truncated and possibly a bit out-of-place in this book, which reads mostly like the sound of waves lapping against the shore at a cottage.
The novel is both an enjoyable read, given its mostly delicate pacing and odd authorial voice, and a frustrating one. The frustration lies in that its main plot points are telegraphed a million miles away, and there seems to be a reoccurring metaphor about frogs and kittens that doesn’t go anywhere, given the repetitive significance these symbols are afforded to by the author.
Also, there are long stretches of narrative where nothing of import really happens – the location being a retreat from the hustle and bustle of everyday life means that nothing really goes on at the titular place of repose. Additionally, there is at least one major plot thread that goes unresolved – what happens to Mrs. Byrd, who leaves the retreat of her own volition about halfway through the novel after apparently falling for the doctor of said retreat.
The book provokes maddening feelings in that this is, on the surface, a novel about Aboriginal-white race relations. However, there is no gleaming insight to be found in The Retreat about such relations, other than the already obvious ones that they are doomed to exist and that the law treats Aboriginals much differently than white men.
Despite the bang-over-one’s-head conclusions the book makes, The Retreat teases subtlety out of what should be the book’s main event – the real-life Native occupation of Anicinabe Park near Kenora in 1974. Here, it is quietly relegated to a sub-plot.
It’s hard to knock The Retreat as Bergen is a fine writer, and what he has crafted here is a book that has a definitive voice and unique feel to it. However, it is sunk by its own lack of resolution and a feeling that this novel would have maybe worked better as a novella or short story, without numerous characters who don’t forward the plot cluttering up the narrative – yet another knock against the story.
Again, will The Retreat make any impact during awards season? Tough to say. But one is left disappointed by the fact that a better book might have come out of the clay of such an intriguing idea of two sides coming together – and silently clashing – in the middle of the rural paradise that is Northern Ontario.