The Writing Retreat by Julia Bartz

Reviewed by Wendy Lipke

This is not the first book that I have read with a similar plot. A small group of people finds themselves in an out-of-the-way place, isolated when something unexpected happens. It is what happens to them that makes this story different.

For me this story was overly seasoned with sexual innuendo, some real, some imagined, and not a male in sight. When reading the first part of the story about the friendship between Alex and Wren I wondered how long I would continue reading. These were not characters I could easily relate to. Their lifestyle and language seemed foreign to me though probably not for someone younger. However, once the location shifted to the beautiful, opulent old home on Blackbriar Estate, and the cast was reduced, I became engrossed in what was happening.

Five young budding female writers are chosen to attend a writing retreat with an author they all admire. The fact that she is celebrated for her books on feminist horror adds to the story that unfolds. Four full pages are given to an interview with the author Roza Vallo, who is running the retreat. This author has ’cultivated this witchery, mythical existence around herself, starting at 19 when her first novel Devil’s Tongue, was published (16). ‘People think I’m a witch.’ When asked if she’s a good witch or a bad witch, she laughs and replies ‘bad’ (15).

This tale is told from the point of view of one of these young women, Alex, who has not been able to write since falling out with her one-time flatmate, Wren, who is also attending the retreat.

Tension builds when they all arrive, and these two adversaries confront each other. It is increased when they all realise that this will not be a relaxing time listening to how to generate a good story. They are given a punishing formula that they must follow if they wish to stay, and this means that there will be little relaxation. The retreat has now been turned into a competition with the winner guaranteed of having their work published, a dream they all have.

Strange things begin to happen. We learn that drugs are administered in their food and drinks causing strange behaviours and, when one of their group goes missing, things take on a sinister turn.

The writer leads the reader down different thought paths until it is difficult to know who is to be feared and who can really be trusted. This seems to change with each revelation. The feelings of fear and dread increase when the true purpose of the retreat is realised. The participants are not all who they first appeared to be. They are trapped in a situation where following the instructions set out for them seems the only way to survive.

This story highlights the problems most writers face at some time from the difficulty in getting published, handling rejection, writers’ block and mentorships. It also promotes female writers and hints at spiritualism as a means of channelling ideas. It addresses how women and girls are often criticized when they exhibit or even feel emotions such as anger, aggression, and self-centeredness causing them to feel intense shame.

The story becomes a multi-layered thriller. Traits such as impulsivity, grandiosity, a lack of empathy, and a tendency to manipulate or control others soon appear. Are the attendees at the mercy of a psychopath?

The author, Julia Bartz, is a Brooklyn-based writer and practicing therapist. She is the author of the popular Psychology Today blog ‘My Pleasure: The New Science of Sex, Dating, and Self-Care’ and previously ran the Brooklyn literary blog ‘BookStalker’. She herself shelved two unpublished novels before channelling her frustration into this dark story about a failed writer. The feelings her characters experience have no doubt been personally felt by the author herself, making the young women in the story more realistic. The story which unfolds keeps the reader in its grip but also puzzled. How could individuals who abhor someone’s actions still feel the need for positive confirmation from that person?

The links to the supernatural through the excerpts from the story Alex was writing seemed more a distraction for me than was probably intended. However, this story did seem to mirror what was happening at the retreat and give Alex the determination she needed at the time.

Although the story seemed to be overly drawn out near the end, it was a gripping read and had a great ending.

The Writing Retreat.

(2023)

by Julia Bartz

Oneworld

ISBN:978-0-86154-643-5

$32.99; 318pp

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