Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Bergen's Retreat

Toronto : McLelland & Stewart, 2008.

I am beginning to wonder what is wrong with me. Am I the only person out there who doesn't actually like David Bergen's work? His last book, The Time In Between, won the Scotiabank Giller Prize, the McNally Robinson Book of the Year Award, the Margaret Laurence Award for Fiction, and was longlisted for the international IMPAC. Surely I am missing something, because I really, really did not like that book. It's one of the books I cite when I talk about how rare it is for me to really dislike a novel. But, this new one had a much more interesting (to me) storyline, so I thought that perhaps I'd try it, maybe my feelings for the other novel were a one off. Thank goodness I didn't hate this one! But, unfortunately, I didn't really love it either. Sigh. I think that David Bergen and I must have clashing imaginations.

The book is extremely well written; I recognize the artistry and the strength of the language and imagery. The setting is amazing. Kenora and environs are brought to full life; if you have never been there you will still be able to smell the forest and lake, to feel the cool night air and the mosquitoes, to hear the sounds in the long summer days. If I could have travelled through this book on a sightseeing tour I would have been delighted. It is set in 1974, the year that Anicinabe Park was occupied by the Ojibway, but that is incidental to the main plot. Bergen tells the story here of a family, the Byrds, uprooted from their Calgary home to spend the summer at The Retreat, a semi-religious, hippielike commune outside of Kenora. The four children are dragged along on the whim of their very selfish, whiny mother, who feels that the Doctor (who runs the Retreat) will be the answer to her amorphous longings for more in life. Of course it doesn't quite work out that way.

While stuck at the Retreat all summer long, in the company of self-absorbed adults, eldest daughter Lizzy falls into a relationship with local Ojibway boy Raymond Seymour. She meets him when he delivers food to the Retreat. We have met him previously, in the book's opening sequence, where his relationship with a white cop's niece during high school was nearly the death of him. The cop and the girl's father aren't very happy about his dating a white girl, and dump him off on an island with the racist comment, "Someone'll find you. If not, you're a fucking Indian. Do your thing." Miraculously, Raymond does survive, but is scarred by his experience and is terrified of the cop. When he and Lizzy begin a relationship you can just see where this is going.

The book mostly succeeds in its aims. The atmosphere of boredom, of menace, of loss and of lust in various forms carries through the story, and results are seen in every character's situation. However. My first real criticism, not just that I didn't connect to it personally, is about the structure of the book. It opens with Raymond; his story is astonishing, raw and powerful and bleak, and seems like it is a set-up for more about his experiences. The next section, introducing us to the Byrd family, is like the beginning of a new novel. Raymond falls into the background, into a role as Lizzy's love interest and a hook for the native part of the story to be hung on. The conclusion of the book was shocking although inevitable; it was inescapable, and that is one of the other things I didn't like, the sense of a destiny pulling the characters along with no chance of escape through any actions on their part. Besides, the only character I felt emotionally connected to was Raymond, due to the opening sequence. I wanted this to be his book, not the insipid and boring Lizzy's. I didn't like any of the characters very much and thought they were emotionally stunted, with no agency in their own lives. Only the bad guys really DO anything.

Nevertheless, every single other person I know who has read this has loved it. (Tina, Luanne, various newspaper reviews, regular live people, etc.) So don't take my word for it. I think most people will find this a challenging, worthwhile read. I am willing to keep trying and maybe someday my sensibilities will engage with one of his books.


  1. Damn!
    I had bought the earlier Bergen book [The Time In Between] to send to my reading partner..... and now hmmm... [after reading your assessment of it] maybe I should use it to stabilize this one wobbly table here?

  2. I just got this one recently. I'll let you know how our thoughts compare when I get through it.

    To Cipriano: Unlike Melanie, I did enjoy The Time In Between so I wouldn't stick it under the table leg just yet.

  3. John - I'm sure you'll be much more positive about it than I was!

    Cipriano - yes, please, put more credence in the awards it received than in my one opinion. I'm sure most people will love it.

  4. I'm reading this book right now and so far so good. I stopped reading after your first paragraph but I will return and read the whole review AFTER I'm finished. I hate knowing any story details before I read it. I was disappointed by The Time in Between, I expected something more powerful. Let's hope this one books clicks with me better.


Thanks for stopping by ~ I always enjoy hearing your comments so please feel free to leave some!