What a subtle yet wild ride THE FARM is. The first step of the journey is to disabuse oneself of any preconceived notion that it is anything similar to Tom Rob Smith’s award-winning CHILD 44 historical thriller trilogy. The only similarity is the pristine quality of both works. Smith’s latest is set in England and Sweden, very much in the here and now. It is based on a personal and painful experience of Smith’s; indeed, the emotion shines through page by page, paragraph by paragraph, as the first-person narration brings the reader into a situation where perception and reality collide on several levels.
"...a narrative in which one feels the floor giving way by degrees while being distracted by other, more immediate events."
Smith tells us much within the space of a few opening pages, setting things up for the ever-broadening expanse of what is to follow. The story is told initially through the voice of Daniel, who lives in London with his significant other. His parents, Chris and Tilde, have been retired from England and residing in apparent rural bliss on a farm they have purchased in Sweden, Tilde’s country of birth. Daniel imagines them as happy and content as they apparently were when they were living in England. That illusion is shattered when Daniel receives a frantic and very unexpected call from his father, advising him that his mother is, as they say, “not well.” Specifically, Tilde has had a psychotic episode and has been hospitalized. Daniel, for reasons of his own, has never visited his parents in Sweden, but makes haste to do so upon hearing this news. On his way to the airport, though, he receives a call from his mother advising him that she has left the hospital and is flying to London to see him. Tilde presents herself in due course; she is not quite herself but not so much so that a stranger could tell.
What follows for a great deal of the remainder of the book is a dialogue between Tilde and Daniel during which she tells him what has occurred since she and Chris relocated to Sweden, and a bit of the situation that occasioned the move. Tilde’s story is a fascinating one. Despite being Swedish by birth, she is treated like an outsider by their neighbors, most particularly Håkan Greggson, a rich landowner who quietly but effectively rules their local patch with a manipulative cheerfulness and who seems bent on purchasing Tilde and Chris’s newly acquired farm from them for reasons of his own. Tilde recounts several episodes when Greggson skillfully engineered subtle humiliations of her. Chris, however, has seemed all too willing to establish a friendly relationship with him, notwithstanding Tilde’s reservations.
All of this might simply be passed off as Tilde’s misinterpretations of an offhand or perhaps unintended slight. As she gets deeper into her story, however, she accuses the locals --- and her husband --- of engaging in a terrible crime and a conspiracy of silence, the result of which was to have her hospitalized in order to silence her. The problem from Daniel’s standpoint is that Tilde’s account does not seem so far-fetched as to be the result of psychosis, yet does not ring entirely true. While resisting the conclusion that his father might be capable of the actions of which he is accused by his mother, Daniel must decide if his mother is an outright liar, delusional, or telling the truth...or some combination of the three. There are consequences that go with any of the choices, and none of them are good.
To some degree, THE FARM put me in the mind of Dennis Lehane's SHUTTER ISLAND, though topically and stylistically they are very different books. While Lehane’s ending was a sledgehammer across the face in a dark room, THE FARM is a narrative in which one feels the floor giving way by degrees while being distracted by other, more immediate events. Those of us of a certain age who have watched and listened as elderly relatives slip gently and otherwise into shadow will find the dialogue as painful to read as it undoubtedly was for Smith to write it. This is an emotionally powerful book from an author who, with each new work, demonstrates that he is a major literary talent.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on June 13, 2014