The front cover of The Retreat, by Sherri Smith, has a review from The Sunday Times Crime Club: “Gives Gone Girl a run for its money”. Quite some recommendation then!
The book has some fantastic themes that I really relate to. Set on a wellness retreat in the middle of nowhere, the residents are expected to hand in their mobile phones on arrival and devote their trust to the hosts. The retreat is ridiculously expensive, and it operates on the premise that each retreat is part of a wonderful journey leading to an empty bank account.
I watch and a read an unreasonable amount of wellness and self-help books, mainly – and plenty of people will back me up on this – because I need all the help I can get. And so I’m a customer, and yet even I’m cynical of the motives, I’m cynical that the hosts make a ridiculous amount of money, and I’m cynical that we treat them with unquestioning trust. There is a cult element to the relationship, and this endearing theme repeated in many of my books (although often it is subtle).
What did I learn from the book? This book was a reminder that you have to be very careful with how much information you reveal in the opening pages. The start of any book is crucial. You need to draw the reader in – to hook them – but you don’t want the reader to know what is going to happen in the rest of the book, and you definitely do not want it to be all downhill from that incredible high.
The very first sentence of The Retreat is “This place had a made a killer out of her”. And so, as a reader, we know that, whatever happens in the next 300 pages or so, it all leads to a killing spree. And so this removes plenty of possible mystery (the big one being ‘what happens in this book?’) and it irons it down to a single mystery. The big question the reader needs to solve throughout the remaining pages is: who is the killer?
In this case, it is probably enough of a mystery to keep you gripped. The book is psychological – the writer invites you to delve deeper into the psyche of the characters to search for clues. Each of the central characters has flaws and secrets and ulterior motives, and so any of them could be the killer.
We definitely needed the hook at the beginning to keep flipping the pages, because the book is quite a ‘slow burn’. The prose is fluent, and beautiful in parts, but perhaps sometimes it is overwritten.
In summary, I enjoyed The Retreat. The themes, setting, structure and characterisations gave me plenty of food for thought. Did it give Gone Girl a run for its money? The two books were chalk and cheese, and so I think it was a stretch to even make a comparison.