Book review: The Family Retreat

The Family Retreat

Bev Thomas

Faber & Faber

Review: Chantel Erfort

When I picked up The Family Retreat I hadn’t done any “reading for fun” in a long time and while the themes the novel centres on are not fun per se, I found Bev Thomas’s story gripping and her writing easy to follow.

The story starts slowly, with Thomas sketching vivid scenes of the present and regularly alluding to the fact that something dark is lurking in the past, the tension palpable even though the reader has no idea – yet – what has given rise to it.

We are dropped into the story of Rob, Jess and their kids Sam and Ruby, when they move to Dorset, seemingly to get away from the city and the renovations taking place at their home. But as the story unfolds, we are let into the secrets and traumas which have led Rob, a writer, and Jess, a GP, to the country.

Life in the seaside town is – on the surface – idyllic, but as Thomas masterfully draws us into the lives of each of her characters, we learn that their lives are far from perfect.

It is the unlikely relationship between Jess and her neighbour Helen that is the cornerstone of the plot of The Family Retreat, with a request for help from Helen setting Jess off into her place of comfort – one where she is helping people and finding solutions to their problems, and one she is familiar with as it formed part of her job… the very job that Thomas keeps reminding us is what has led to Jess and her family escaping the city.

While I enjoyed the slow pace of the first two thirds of the novel, I felt it led to Thomas neglecting the last part of the story. After the slow amble to the peak, the big reveal felt like an avalanche tumbling down the mountain to the end.

So much is packed into the last part of the story that I felt overwhelmed and ultimately unsatisfied. This novel is focused on some heavy themes, including mental illness, abusive relationships and the impact secrets can have on families.

Some, I felt were dealt with well, while others were portrayed in a somewhat clichéd and predictable manner.

Nonetheless, I felt that Thomas, a clinical psychologist, did well to tell a story that highlights the many misunderstandings, assumptions and the shame that still surround mental health and matters pertaining to domestic abuse.