I love locked room mysteries, so I was immediately intrigued by the premise of The Retreat: an avalanche strands the guests and staff at a remote mountain retreat for artists. Tensions rise, old wounds come to the surface, and then someone dies in mysterious circumstances. We see the story unfold from the perspective of the only newcomer to the group, Maeve, a former ballerina who’s on the mountain for inspiration as she plans the next steps of her career.
The Retreat had many locked room elements I love: suspicious characters, layers of drama, and a situation with no escape. I liked Maeve’s backstory: she’s just coming out of an abusive marriage, so her experiences with her violent and stalkerish ex increase her anxiety about the situation. Those same experiences also come to her aid in the climax, and I really like how the author turns Maeve’s trauma into a useful tool for her survival.
The author is also very good at creating atmosphere: the remoteness of the mountain lodge and the deadly blanket of snow surrounding it felt almost claustrophobic on the page, and I can only imagine how much worse it was for the characters trapped in the situation. The setting itself plays a role as a villain, and there’s a definite sense that even if the murderer doesn’t get you, the snow and lack of access to resources very well could.
Unfortunately, I also found the book to be very slow. Each chapter spans a full day in the retreat, so the entire book is composed of only about 7 chapters. The final one was a whirlwind, and I was racing through the pages to find out what happens next, but the first half or so was a bit of a struggle to get through. It wasn’t enough of a slog that I ever seriously contemplated not finishing it — there was enough of a hook to keep me at least mildly curious throughout, but I never actually felt an urgency to keep reading until the last couple of chapters or so.
Much of it is that with the exception of Maeve, most of the other characters never really came alive for me enough to care about what happened to them. There was a bossy guy Dan, the sexy but kinda creepy guy Sim, the grouchy young woman Sadie, and other characters Anna, Justin, and retreat owner Karo. All of them played significant roles in the drama and the mystery, but despite their character details and backstories, they all also fell flat for me. Even Maeve took me a while to understand, and she had the most complex backstory. And while Anna and Karo are probably two of the most important side characters in the novel, I don’t have enough of a handle on their personalities to describe them.
Perhaps an even bigger problem was that I also found the characters’ motivations obscure. Possibly this was the author’s choice, because even after the big reveal, there was still a lot of ambiguity around some of the details. But because the strength of a locked room mystery depends so much on the strength of its characters, not understanding the characters made it hard for me to really get into the story.
There are also some odd shifts in behaviour that either didn’t add to the story or didn’t really get explored enough. For example, when Maeve arrives at the resort, Sadie seems to be a major fan. But because Maeve was rude at first, Sadie seems to immediately decide she hates Maeve, and acts all grouchy for the rest of the novel? For someone who works visitor experience, I’d expect Sadie to have a bit of a thicker skin.
The Goodreads blurb identifies this book as a literary thriller, rather than just a thriller, so that may explain the slow build-up and somewhat ambiguous reveals. As I said, the author does a great job in creating and maintaining atmosphere, and I really like how she used Maeve’s backstory within the mystery. Ultimately, this wasn’t quite the book for me — when it comes to thrillers, I prefer the faster-paced, more straightforward style of authors like Ruth Ware, Mary Kubica, and Kelley Armstrong. But I can see the style of this novel appealing to readers who prefer more subtlety and a slower burn.
Thank you to the publisher an Netgalley for an e-galley in exchange for an honest review.