The Farm – Tom Rob Smith
I don’t think I’ll ever go to Sweden. Between this book and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, it doesn’t sound like the happiest country.
Our British narrator, Daniel, gets a call from his dad Chris – his parents having moved to a farm in Sweden several months earlier – who tells him that his mum Tilde has been showing signs of mental illness and has been checked into a mental hospital. Before Daniel can even get his head together, his mum calls him to say that his dad is lying, that she’s discovered a serious conspiracy, and that her enemies (including Chris) are trying to destroy her credibility to protect themselves. Tilde heads to Britain and spends most of the story relaying her version of events to Daniel, about all the strange and sinister things she has seen on the farm and its surrounding community, while Daniel tries to figure out whether to believe her.
The story is ultimately a mystery, with both Tilde and Daniel trying to piece everything together, complicated by the fact that Tilde may or may not be an unreliable narrator. And while I was unsure about it to start off with, it really drew me in and kept me hooked. The environment of the story is also used very well, with a great atmosphere created; you can feel the insular nature of the community and the impact of the surrounding landscape.
A couple of things in particular didn’t work for me. First, there’s the framing device; as I said, most of the story consists of Tilde’s recollection of what’s been happening, and I kept thinking to myself, “Considering she’s supposed to be really worried about her enemies catching up with them, and wanting to go to the police as soon as possible, she’s certainly going into a lot of florid detail here, isn’t she?” (I was reminded of Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian, where a high proportion of the prose is made up of similarly long and detailed letters that it’s difficult to imagine anyone actually taking the time to write for the purpose of just filling another person in – not to mention, managing to recall every little detail.) To the story’s credit, it does acknowledge this and try to justify it – Tilde wants to tell the story in a certain way as she feels that will prove she’s not insane – but it still feels a bit wrong considering the context of the situation.
Second, there’s the characters. We spend most of our time with Daniel and Tilde, and I didn’t really care for either of them. Daniel is uncertain, naïve and a tad spineless, a product of a sheltered upbringing. Tilde is irritatingly abrasive and paranoid (which, again, is partly justifiable). Some of the characters that Tilde describes, such as the community leader Hokan and his adopted daughter Mia, are more interesting, however.
I did like the ending, as well. Without spoiling anything, it didn’t go down the obvious route that I was expecting, instead making things a bit more complicated. Then again, there are some elements to the story that the ending doesn’t quite explain, and I think I’ll have to listen to the story again to see just how it holds up.
Overall, despite the weaknesses of the two main characters, and taking a little while to settle into, The Farm is a compelling, atmospheric story that keeps you interested in what’s coming. Rating: 3.5/5.