By Daniela Montes-Bellows
Sibling relationships are hard. Throw in the death of a parent, years-long guilt, and a rocky marriage and you have The Retreat by Zara Raheem.
Two days after her thirty-fifth birthday, Nadia is sitting on her counter looking at the pictures her husband, Aman, took while they were on their sunrise hike. The hike had given them time to connect, something busy work schedules had taken away. Nadia notices six pictures are missing. That morning, after giving Nadia a Roomba as a birthday present, Aman tells Nadia to cancel their plans with their friends, again, because he has to work. While looking in Aman’s study and darkroom for the Roomba’s instruction manual, Nadia finds the negatives for the missing pictures and decides to get them developed. The pictures send her reeling. They’re of a candle lit dinner, Aman’s hand in someone else’s with an envelope that says “Happy Anniversary, baby” on it. Could her husband of ten years be cheating on her? Is it because they don’t have children? Are they both too busy with their careers? Nadia turns to sister, Zeba, for solace, but this moment is not without its own awkwardness as this is the first time in a year that they spend time together.
The once close sisters’ relationship strained when their mother became sick, and Zeba took on their mother’s care while Nadia stopped visiting or calling. As the sisters spend more time together, the family dynamics and history are brought to light. Nadia’s tension stems from her belief that Zeba is the favorite because she was the perfect daughter, which is supported by the fact that their mother did not bless her and Aman before their wedding. These relationships cycle around one another in the tailspin of Nadia’s life.
While The Retreat is about Nadia and Aman—relationships, marriages, infidelity, and communication, it is also about Nadia and Zeba—siblings, specifically sisters, families, obligations, love, and support. Raheem does a beautiful job writing the sibling relationship. There is a sense of realness to their dynamic. The sisters’ relationship is strained, but there is a familiarity between them. Zeba is supportive of her sister; she is there to hold Nadia up while she struggles with the breakdown of her marriage and healing the maternal relationship, but Zeba also won’t hesitate to correct Nadia when she needs to.
Like real-life sisters, their story wouldn’t be complete without shenanigans. Zeba encourages Nadia to go on the retreat Aman’s yoga studio is hosting to confront the person Aman is cheating with. Raheem focuses on the retreat because it is Nadia’s final straw. Nadia is out of her comfort zone—completely out of her element. She has no one to rely on there, except herself, and to add salt to her wounds, she’s even sharing a room with the woman she suspects Aman is cheating on her with.
Usually, when people go on retreats it’s because they are interested in the topic, at the very least the activities, and are not to trying to convince their husband’s lover to leave them alone. At the retreat, it’s not the yoga that changes Nadia’s life but something that happens there. An encounter with a bear. Animals, throughout the novel, have been an important symbol. Nadia is visited by her mother in various animal forms. The bear has the biggest impact because Nadia was pushing away from her mother. But a bear is a difficult force to overcome. Who can say no to a bear? Through this encounter, Nadia is able to let go of the expectations and hurt she carried around for years, freeing herself. Despite her marriage crumbling, Nadia is able to mend her relationship with her sister, herself, and to a degree, Aman.
Raheem’s book is filled with love, delicious food, a mostly fun dawat (dinner party) scene, and coming to terms with the expectations that are put onto us by family, society, and ourselves. Nadia’s journey is relatable. Many people have to start over when they’ve reached the middle of their relationships. Readers will enjoy Nadia’s relationship with Zeba and the ending will make them smile.
Daniela Z. Montes received her Master of Fine Arts from the University of California–Riverside, Palm Desert Low-Residency Program. She hosted writing workshops at her local public library. Her poems “Cocoxoxhitl (Dahlias),” “Nopal (Cactus),” and “Jacaranda” were published on Kelp Journal’s blog, The Wave. Kelp Journal also published her true horror story, “Hellhounds.” She was The Coachella Review’s Social Media Manager. Daniela received her Bachelor of Arts in English from the University of California–Santa Barbara, where she received an honorable mention in the Kieth E. Vineyard Honorary Scholarship Short Story Contest.