Book Review: The Farm by Tom Rob Smith
Family loyalties, secrets and conspiracies, and questions about mental health lie at the center of the new novel The Farm by author Tom Rob Smith. In this compulsively readable book, the reader is left to wonder just what is true and what is delusion, and unraveling the hints and clues makes for a reading experience that’s hard to walk away from once started.
In The Farm, 20-something Daniel lives in a beautiful apartment in London, supported by his older boyfriend Mark — the boyfriend that he just never seems to find the right time to mention to his parents, especially now that they’ve retired from their gardening business and moved to a farm in Sweden. Although Daniel remembers his childhood as peaceful and happy, he’s drifted away from his parents in recent years, allowing miles and his own secret to create a distance that becomes harder and harder to bridge.
As the story opens, Daniel receives a shocking phone call from his father, telling him that his mother Tilde is in the hospital, having suffered a mental collapse, and is now institutionalized and being treated for a psychotic episode. No sooner does Daniel get off the phone to arrange for a flight to Sweden than he gets another call, this one from his mother, pleading with Daniel not to believe his father’s lies and informing him that she’s on her way to London, where she’ll explain everything.
Tilde’s arrival rocks Daniel to the core. His always cheerful, together mother arrives looking bedraggled and spouting wild comments about conspiracies and crimes. She claims to have proof — a battered leather satchel that she won’t allow out of her grasp. She warns Daniel that they must not allow his father to find them, as he and his partners in crime are determined to lock her away and discredit her as part of their own cover-up.
What’s Daniel to do? His mother’s tales sound too wild to be believed, yet there’s something there that compels him to listen. She’s clearly unstable, and as she displays her evidence and lays out her story, she does sound unhinged — but her tale has enough rationality in it that Daniel can’t dismiss it outright. As Tilde goes further and further into her story, it’s clear that something unexpected happened in Sweden, and that the peaceful country retirement went very wrong, very quickly. But every shred of Tilde’s evidence can be explained away, so who is to be believed? Is Tilde a sick woman, in need of commitment to a mental facility for her own well-being? Or is she a woman who’s been set up to take the fall in order to keep a dark underbelly of depraved acts hidden from view?
Reading The Farm, we’re as torn as Daniel. Much of what Tilde says has a ring of truth, and obviously she believes wholeheartedly in what she’s saying. There are enough errant facts to indicate that something was amiss in the small Swedish community where the couple had hoped to make their home. And yet, Tilde’s wild distractions, her grasping for meaning in small inconsequentialities, leave us to wonder whether Daniel’s father might have been right all along.
I won’t spoil anything by going into an explanation of how it all works out. Daniel’s task is to unravel his mother’s stories before his father shows up to have her committed again, and it’s up to Daniel to figure out where the truth lies. The reader is along for the ride, seeing the bits and pieces as Daniel does, and over the course of the book, trying to fit together the puzzle pieces in order to see the greater whole.
The Farm has a darkness to it, woven in among the domestic details of a seemingly simple life. The empty landscapes of remote Sweden have a sinister overtone, and even the supposed richness of the land and the nearby river betray Tilde, as nothing works out for her as she’d envisioned. The purity of self-sustaining country life that she’d dreamed of is nothing but illusion, and the remoteness of the farm doesn’t shield Tilde and her husband Chris from the pressures and politics of the local farming community and its more influential members. The writing conveys the bleakness and isolation of the farm, the stark beauty of the Swedish countryside adding an element of mythical danger with its deep, dark forests.
There’s a darkness, too, in the depiction of Daniel’s happy family. He remembers a perfect childhood in which his parents never argued or showed signs of the slightest disagreement. He also believed his parents to be completely happy. Sure, some oddities are there — Daniel grew up without siblings or any relatives, his mother being estranged from the parents in Sweden whom she’d left decades earlier. As Daniel uncovers the secrets and lies within his parents’ marriage, he also is forced to confront his own need for secrecy and accept his role in creating the emotional chasms between him and his parents that allowed this crisis to go so far without his knowledge.
The author keeps us on our toes. Like Daniel, we spend much of the book listening to Tilde try to convince us that what she thinks happened is what really happened. The writing here shifts between Daniel’s observations of his mother’s behavior and longer segments in which we hear Tilde’s first person account. This is the unreliable narrator device at its best, serving to keep us off-balance, torn between wanting to believe and knowing something is just… off.
I enjoyed The Farm very much. It’s a quick read, and really impossible to put down once you start. I couldn’t stop thinking about Tilde’s story, knowing that what she says can’t be entirely true, yet knowing too that there must be an answer as to why she believes what she believes — and that even if she is unreliable, there’s enough that’s questionable in her tale to show that something isn’t right at the farm. Perhaps the big, dark secrets and the unraveling of the mysteries weren’t quite as huge as I’d expected; still, the truth that emerges is devastating in its own quiet way. The ending of The Farm is entirely satisfying, true to the characters and adding a sad logic to all of the events we’d heard about.
Title: The Farm
Author: Tom Rob Smith
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
Publication date: June 3, 2014
Length: 368 pages
Source: Review copy courtesy of Grand Central Publishing via NetGalley