My thanks go out to Helen, representing publicist Helen Richardson PR, for saving me a place on this lovely Blog Tour schedule.
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.
She anticipates a friendly and supportive little community but does not get quite what she was hoping for.
ALISON MOORE – (Image credit: Beth Walsh Photography)
Alison Moore’s short stories have been published in various magazines, journals and anthologies, including Best British Short Stories, Best British Horror and Best New Horror, and broadcast on BBC Radio.
The title story of her first collection, The Pre-War House, won the New Writer Novella Prize.
Her debut 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.
Recent publications include a trilogy for children, beginning with Sunny and the Ghosts.
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.
Born in Manchester in 1971, she lives in a village on the Leicestershire-Nottinghamshire border with her husband and son.
Visit Alison at her website
Follow Alison on Twitter
Liel was an in-between place. Lying one hundred miles from the English coast, the island resembled Sandra’s known world but it had its own currency and its own system of car number plates; its post boxes were blue and its telephone boxes were yellow. It was not far from France but was not French. The island had its own distinctive language but Sandra had only heard English spoken there, though in a foreign accent. Some of the street signs and house names were in English and some were in French, or at least it looked like French.
Carol is going to miss the city. She will miss the theatres and the restaurants and the bars. She has favourites but most of all she appreciates the variety, the choice. There is always some new venue or show opening, and a friend to go with. The cinema is advertising a film that she would have liked to see but which has not yet been released. She will have to watch it some other time, at home, on her little TV.
She will even miss the buskers, she thinks, dropping some change into a music student’s open violin case.
She doubts she will miss the crowds, the pavements choked with meandering pedestrians who, as the rain starts, open umbrellas whose spokes go for her eyes. She will not miss the prices, the tourist tat, the congestion, the dirty air. She will not miss this weather. The puddles are spoiling her new calfskin shoes, wetting her tights. But then, she supposes, the weather will be much the same where she is going.
She will miss her son, of course. She will miss Jayne, and their lunches, during which Jayne listens patiently while Carol complains. Mostly, she complains that, although her short stories are well-received, she is almost unknown, and that the novel she has always wanted to write is still not written. She writes fantasy. What she really wants is to write a series of fantasy novels.
“She wonders if, even now, it is too late for her to go to art college. But she has a fear that she will find she does not have the talent for it after all, or the motivation, the passion, or something. Her godfather was an artist, and moderately successful. But his creative experience seemed to consist of long periods of slogging, or blockage, and maddening frustration, in pursuit of brief orgasmic moments of insight or creative breakthrough which Sandra has never had and can hardly imagine, but which he seemed to live for and which she wants”
“The little island is dominated by a grand white house which might be showing its age but which is still striking. She used to want to live in the houses she saw pictured on chocolate box lids, cottages that were inseparable from that sweet smell, like gingerbread houses. This house looks nothing like those long-ago fairy-tale cottages, but it has the same kind of appeal. She would like to try to capture it on the page”
“You’re supposed to make sacrifices,’ says the man. ‘Sacrifice yourself for your art. Comfort is the enemy of progress and all that”
“I only realised just how good this novella was, after I had finished it”
Oh my goodness! This is going to be such a difficult review to pitch correctly and I can only hope that author, Alison Moore, feels that I have paid due care, attention and diligence to my finished post.
Let me open by admitting that I don’t generally read either the novella or short story format, which compounded by the fact that I didn’t have a page numbered copy, meant that when The Retreat ended rather unexpectedly and abruptly for me, I have to say I was left feeling almost bereft, nonplussed and actually, a little devastated.
However, the longer I took to ponder the ‘what ifs’ of the cliff-hanger final page, the more I came to realise that there was a stronger cohesive structure to the storyline, with more substance and quality, in the relatively few words of this novella, than in many full-length novels I have read. Whatever eventual outcome I chose to attach to those final words and silent scenes, appeared to be my decision, and mine alone. I doubt that no two readers will probably share the same perspective about their abandonment by the author at this crucial juncture and more importantly, what happens next!
The slow, lugubrious journey to this state of suspended reality, was beautifully constructed, one might almost say, precision engineered, by an author who is supremely confident in her ability to draw the reader so deeply into her tangled, twisted web of misery and deceit, that there can be no way back for the unsuspecting victim. Narrated in the third person, from the perspectives of the two principle protagonists, there are some seamless, well planned and measured breaks, when short chapters switch between Sandra and Carol’s individual experiences, as the two separate strands of this tale are inexorably drawn closer and closer together, until they become as one.
Sandra joins a two week excursion to the remote island of Lieloh, for a retreat experience, hoping to discover whether her long held ambition to take professional lessons and become an artist, are as much a reality as she would like them to be. However, something is immediately wrong with this idyllic picture, when it becomes obvious that, although the other five members of the group Sandra is to be marooned with, purport not to know each other, they appear to collectively gang up on her at every opportunity and visibly seek to ostracise her from the community, although she can’t fathom why. At first Sandra shrugs off the snide jibes and barbs, giving the others as wide a berth as possible, however after a few days of this treatment, something inside her snaps and she bites back, which raises the tension stakes even higher as she fights fire with fire. There are several recurring triggers which ramp up this battle of wills, whether it be the endless cheese salads Sandra is forced to eat, or the countless number of times she has to endure listening to the single old record one of the group’s number has found on the shelves. So many things which make her anxious, then angry, by varying degrees. The situation degenerates almost to breaking point, when the group is totally ignoring Sandra as though she is no longer there and Sandra has lowered herself to their level by deliberately antagonising and provoking them. In fact the visceral retaliation by Sandra is quite powerful and intense and at times I began to wonder whether the rest of the group were actually the primary source of all the discontent, or whether it was indeed Sandra herself.
The one common denominator between the two islands of Lieloh and Little Lieloh, is that they were both once home to the famous Swanson family and reclusive actress Valerie, at odds with the rest of her family, died in Little Lieloh’s single house. This is where Carol is spending an extended break, at the invitation of one of the Swanson descendants, in order to write her debut fantasy novel, in solitude and uninterrupted peace and quiet. Although it would appear that she is not as alone as she might like, or believes she is!!
This immersive multi-layered storyline, is highly disturbing, intense and textured. The fluent and honest writing is taut and concise, evocative whilst fully complementing and respecting the length of the story, with not so much as a wasted, or empty of meaning, word. The atmosphere is rich, yet cloying and claustrophobic, certainly not conducive to a restful retreat, as even when Sandra believes herself to be alone, that is seldom the case, as someone from the group is generally watching over her shoulder, if only from a distance; and unknown hidden forces are definitely at work on Little Lieloh, where Carol may have acquired an unwanted guest. Some wonderfully descriptive narrative added visual depth and range, set the scene and offered such a real and genuine sense of time and place, that I imagined I could almost reach out and be there. Although the last place I would have wanted to be is on either Lieloh or Little Lieloh, with the aura of all those negative vibes floating around, just waiting to suffocate me, or I suspect, with even worse intentions!
Alison has drawn and developed a complex cast of characters, none of whom I found particularly charming or compelling, as I had this really eerie feeling that they all seemed dissatisfied with their lives and felt totally unfulfilled. They were far too manipulative and duplicitous to make me want to invest any of my time or energy in trying to connect, or engage with them. This story was however, very much their own and although some of them were not given a particularly loud voice, they each had a tangible presence and demanded to be heard.
This very three dimensional journey, which began for me as work of contemporary literary fiction, very quickly developed into an existential study of modern alienation, before completing its journey as a deep and dark psychological drama – and all in less than 200 pages! It was thought provoking by nature and boy! did I need to think about it, which was surprisingly cathartic, after the sheer underlying air of malevolence and desolation which pervaded the pages of the book as I read. Were there perhaps parallels to be drawn between the treatment meted out to Sandra by the other members of the group, with the constant harassment and feuding between Valerie Swanson and her family? I wonder!
Alison is definitely a confident master in her chosen writing form and I look forward to connecting with some of her previous novella’s and short stories in the months ahead.
A complimentary PDF of this book for review purposes, was made available by publicist Helen Richardson PR and Salt Publishing
Any thoughts or comments are my own personal opinion and I am in no way being monetarily compensated for this, or any other article which promotes this book or its author.
I personally do not agree with ‘rating’ a book, as the overall experience is all a matter of personal taste, which varies from reader to reader. However some review sites do demand a rating value, so when this review is posted to such a site, it will attract a well deserved 5 out of 5 stars!