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The Retreat


The Retreat

"This place made a killer out of me."

This sentence kicks off THE RETREAT, Winnipeg native Sherri Smith’s intense novel. The last sentence of the first chapter concerns the same woman who made this opening proclamation. In that chilling statement, we are given a bit of the story’s ending when we learn “She was the last girl standing.”

Whenever you have a book that appears to have a simple enough premise --- in this case, four young women heading to upstate New York for a weekend retreat --- but then opens with the fact that only one of them will make it out of that seemingly innocent road trip, you are suddenly spurred to keep turning the pages to find out exactly what happened.

Katie Manning is our lead, and her relationships with the other three ladies will provide the novel's action and mystery. Katie was once a child actress and Hollywood darling, but things did not end well for her as she was brutally attacked by her manager, permanently scarring her face in the process. She has not had an easy time growing up outside the limelight, and to say that she has had a few issues would be a gross understatement. Katie comes up with the idea for the retreat as a way of getting to know her brother's soon-to-be wife. Ellie is a proper British lass who does not hit it off with Katie. To keep the peace and make her fiancé happy, she agrees to go away with Katie.

"Smith is able to ratchet up the tension while taking the plot and characters right to the brink of unbelievability --- and then pulls out the rug from beneath the sharp narrative to send things in a completely different and sometimes unexpected direction."

Ellie is a bit dismayed to quickly learn that it would not be a duo but a foursome heading upstate. Katie picks up her closest friends, Ariel and Carmen, to join them for the weekend. Each succeeding chapter is told from the point of view of one of these four women. We learn very early on that each of them has issues and secrets they wish to hide. Ariel, for instance, up and left her family to head off for the weekend with friends. She ignores the text from her family that states: "THE POLICE JUST LEFT HERE! WHAT HAVE YOU DONE ARIEL!!? CALL HOME NOW!"

When they arrive at the retreat site, they are greeted by their hosts: Dr. Dave and his wife, Naomi. There are a handful of others also spending the weekend with these two interesting people, each of whom will play their part in the deadly drama that is to follow. The guests are asked to tell their backstories, which is not an easy thing, as we already have learned from the small glimpses we've seen of the four ladies. Ellie is not at all comfortable talking about herself, especially when it comes to the tragic death of her sister, Violet.

Katie, who is often haunted by bad dreams, wakes up to find a knife covered in blood that is practically sharing her pillow. She claims to have no recollection of ever seeing it or using it on anyone or anything. We learn that she has always been in denial about allegedly killing her family dog when she was younger --- another memory she has tucked away safely in the recess of her mind. Smith will deftly strip away different sections of the plot in a way that cunningly uncovers the truth behind the bloodied knife --- which is just the start of what we know will be a tragic weekend.

We cannot forget about the fourth member of the group, Carmen, who has hidden a past that involves drug use and sales. It is this weakness of hers that finds her allegedly stealing a large bit of cocaine from two guests at the retreat --- a pair of individuals you would not want to get on the bad side of. With all of this going on, as well as Ariel's secret criminal past, all the reader can do is buckle up for a wild and eye-opening ride.

Smith is able to ratchet up the tension while taking the plot and characters right to the brink of unbelievability --- and then pulls out the rug from beneath the sharp narrative to send things in a completely different and sometimes unexpected direction. We already know the ending, so I won't give away anything else. All I can say is that it is well worth your time to get to the end to see who will be left once the dust settles.

I am a former resident of New York and have family in both the Hudson Valley and Adirondack Mountain regions. This retreat is set in the Catskills, a sleepy and haunting part of the Hudson Valley. I had the opportunity to ask Smith what would make a writer from Winnipeg, Canada, set a novel in this part of New York. She replied: “I set THE RETREAT in New York because my main character is a former child celebrity with a certain level of fame and fortune that isn’t usually achievable in the Canadian entertainment industry.” I enjoyed her answer and look forward to where she will take us in her next effort.

Reviewed by Ray Palen on September 13, 2019

The Retreat
by Sherri Smith