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Thursday 2 March 2023

‘The Writing Retreat’ by Julia Bartz

Published by Magpie Books,
2 March 2023.
ISBN: 978-0-86154-443-1(HB)

To a struggling writer it’s a perfect situation, every aspiring novelist’s dream in fact: a month-long writing retreat far away from the demands of the real world, domestic chores taken care of, delicious meals provided. Not only all this, but also an established, even acclaimed, novelist on hand to provide advice and encouragement – and a genuine possibility of publication at the end of the process.

Five young women, each distinct and well-drawn, but not everyone as she seems on the surface, are chosen to spend a month with Roza Vallo, a reclusive and controversial author whose every new novel is a major event in the literary world. The house is richly appointed, opulently furnished, with a history that’s a novel in itself. The beds are four-posters; there’s a private chef; each woman receives a gift of a gold necklace on the first night. Perfect.

But flaws in the perfection soon begin to emerge. There’s no wifi or phone reception; they are cut off from the outside world, a mixed blessing for any writer. Alex, the narrator and protagonist, is alarmed to find one of the other women is a former friend who she has good reason not to want in her life. Even the format of the retreat isn’t quite what they are expecting; they discover on the first evening that they are each required to start a new piece of work, produce a minimum number of words each day, and take part in a stringent and ongoing editing process. But at the end of the month the best of the five will be signed up by Roza’s own publisher: a deal few aspiring writers would turn down.

To a keen reader of mystery fiction this smacks of an all too familiar scenario with an inevitable end. There’s even an inscrutable Russian housekeeper whose role is ambiguous. And then it snows, and because the house is in a remote mountain location they are completely cut off; the nearest neighbours are fifteen miles away. Before the retreat is half over someone dies, though apparently through her own stupidity, not murder. And that’s when everything changes.

The cover blurb describes this novel as intelligent, accomplished and exciting. It’s all that and a lot more besides. The moral of the story is, if you follow your dream, be prepared for a nightmare. Eventually Alex is faced with a seemingly impossible choice: does she try against the odds to escape and go for help, or does she acquiesce to Roza’s increasingly bizarre regime and stay and finish her novel? No spoilers here: read it and see. You won’t regret it.

Reviewer: Lynne Patrick

Julia Bartz is a Brooklyn-based writer and practicing therapist. Her fiction writing has appeared in The South Dakota Review, InDigest Magazine, and more. The Writing Retreat is her first novel. Follow her on Twitter @JuliaBartz and Instagram at @JuliaBartz.

 Lynne Patrick has been a writer ever since she could pick up a pen, and has enjoyed success with short stories, reviews and feature journalism, but never, alas, with a novel. She crossed to the dark side to become a publisher for a few years and is proud to have launched several careers which are now burgeoning. She lives in Oxfordshire in a house groaning with books, about half of them crime fiction.

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