THE RETREAT, WINNIPEGGER DAVID BERGEN’S FIFTH NOVEL and a nominee for the 2008 Giller Prize, is full of ironies that would be funny if they weren’t so sad. The title, for instance, refers to a hippy commune set up on the outskirts of Kenora, Ontario, the mission of which is to “augment peace.” In the summer of 1974, however, when the events of the novel unfold, the only thing it augments is violence.
Among the people at the Retreat that summer are the Byrd family. Lewis Byrd has come to the Retreat in a last-ditch effort to save his marriage to Norma, a restless, unhappy woman who has fallen under the sway of the self-styled guru who runs the place. The four Byrd children – teen-aged Lizzy and her three younger brothers, tag along reluctantly.
Not far from the Retreat is Anicinabe Park, which gained national notoriety in the summer of 1974 when it was occupied by armed Ojibways protesting impoverished living conditions and police harassment. Kenora was a volatile place in the seventies, and Anicinabe Park became a symbol of racial tensions. Using this historic moment as a backdrop, Bergen introduces Raymond and Nelson Seymour, two brothers of Ojibway origin, into his plot. When Lizzy Byrd falls for 19-year-old Raymond, the stage is set for a tragedy worthy of Shakespeare.
The plot is grippingly told, but what ultimately remains with the reader is Bergen’s cast of characters. Like Bergen’s The Time in Between, winner of the 2005 Scotiabank Giller Prize, The Retreat features a father and his children. In The Time in Between, the father was a tortured Vietnam War veteran who makes a nostalgic trip back to Vietnam and mysteriously vanishes. In The Retreat, Lewis Byrd sticks around. It is his wife who deserts the family, while Lewis tries to hold it together.
Bergen gives each of the Byrd children a separate chapter. In a feat reminiscent of Faulkner’s rendering of the doomed Compson family in The Sound and the Fury, Bergen offers an impressive range of personalities and perspectives.
With startling accuracy, he describes the mixture of weariness and excitement 17-year-old Lizzy feels as she wards off the constant attentions of men. Without a single false note, he shows her having her first sexual encounter and also falling in love with Raymond Seymour. Lizzy’s younger brother Everett is equally convincing. At 14, Everett is on the verge of discovering his own complex sexuality and inclinations. The interplay between him and Nelson Seymour, whose experiences in a white foster home have left deep, ugly scars, filled this reader with dread. In another stunning chapter, 4-year-old Fish wanders away from his negligent mother and gets lost in the woods. Written in simple, sensual prose, this chapter allows readers the rare pleasure of seeing the world once again through 4-year-old eyes.
The Retreat resists categorization. A love story and a history, a political indictment of Canada’s treatment of its native peoples and a sad tale of a marriage and a family unraveling, it is everything a reader could ask for, and more.
Claire Holden Rothman is a Montreal writer and translator whose novel, The Heart Specialist, will be published in February, 2009.