I read a lot of thrillers. They’re usually an easy read because they aren’t filled with deep, meaningful prose and the best ones move at a fast pace with surprising twists and turns. You can polish off a good thriller in a night or two. Frequently though, they are somewhat hollow at their core and are forgotten as soon as you put them back up on your book shelf. They also often have great set ups but provide unsatisfying resolutions. Tom Rob Smith’s The Farm is an exception to these general rules. In addition to providing a completely unpredictable, inventive narrative, it’s a complex tale about memory and the bond between parents and their children. It mixes in elements of fantasy, horror, and comedy with great skill. If you’re looking for a readable, intense, creepy, and profoundly moving book to read this October, The Farm has got you covered.
The novel begins in London from the first person perspective of our main protagonist, Daniel. Daniel is a failed architect who has just moved in with his partner, an older man. His parents recently moved to a farm in the Swedish countryside (where his mother grew up) and he has yet to tell them that he is gay. Not because they’d be ashamed but because he does not want to shatter the image of the perfect, normal family that he has kept at the forefront of his mind for so long. As he’s returning home from the supermarket, he receives a disturbing phone call from his father. Apparently, his mother has suffered a psychotic break with reality; she’s become prone to paranoid delusions and believes her loving husband to now be her enemy. Daniel cannot believe what he is hearing. His mother has always been a great source of reason. His Dad asks him to come to Sweden and visit her in the insane asylum to see if maybe he can reach her in a way that the doctors can’t. Frightened and bewildered, Daniel agrees. Before he even gets upstairs to his apartment though, he receives a second phone call, this one from his mother. She tells him she’s just escaped from the asylum, she’s on her way to see him, and his father is a liar. She says she’s the victim of a violent conspiracy and her husband is at the center of it. She also tells Daniel, “If you believe him, I will no longer consider you my son.”
This is an intriguing set up but one with only three logical conclusions, or so I thought: (1). Daniel’s father is telling the truth and Mom has gone insane. (2). Mom is telling the truth and Daniel’s seemingly kind father is actually an evil man capable of great cruelty. (3). There is no definitive answer and the author leaves it for the reader to decide. That 3rd one would have been the worst. I hate stories that set up mysteries and then just shrug their shoulders at the end, as if to say, “well what do you think?” That’s a device that works far less often than writers think it does. Sometimes ambiguity has a purpose but more often it’s just lazy. Thankfully, there is no ambiguity in The Farm. We get a definitive answer and I was pleasantly shocked to discover there was a 4th and even a 5th possible conclusion.
Once Daniel’s mother, Tilde, arrives in London, she begins to tell him her side of the story and the narrative shifts to her perspective. The bulk of the novel is her version of events juxtaposed with Daniel jumping in every few pages to process what he does and does not believe. This is a clever way of using Daniel to ask the questions we have about his mother’s scary story. He, of course, wants to believe her but some of her evidence is, to say the least, suspect. But then again, he finds himself checking facts about certain things she brings up and discovers that many of them are true. She’s also just so damn convincing and fully aware of how utterly insane her story (which involves the abduction and murder of a lot of women) sounds. Daniel doesn’t know what the hell to believe and, as a result, neither do we. The thing he struggles the most to make sense of is the way she insists that his father is an evil man and that it did not take long for her to realize this. “But you’ve always had a loving marriage”, Daniel insists and Tilde gently corrects him, telling him that they hid the bad sides of their relationship from him in order to makes sure he always felt like everything was fine. This is a running theme of the novel; the way parents and children keep secrets from each other in order to preserve some false ideal they have about family.
Tilde is as much of a main character as Daniel. At least half of the book is told from her perspective and we learn a great deal more about her life than just her time in Sweden over the past six months. We go back to her childhood to discover she was once accused of a terrible crime (something else she never told Daniel). It’s haunted her ever since and left her estranged from her family and friends. It’s in this section that Smith dips into fantasy and horror, as Tilde tells Daniel about the troll who lurked in the woods near her home. It’s a dangerous plot point to bring up seeing as it should definitively tell us that Tilde is crazy but Smith is a gifted writer and he keeps his cards close to his chest. Tilde herself admits it could have been her overactive imagination but something clearly happened to her back then. Maybe there was a troll after all? Smith doesn’t leave it out of the realm of possibility.
I was unfamiliar with Smith as an author before this novel landed in my lap. He wrote the very popular Child 44 trilogy and it’s safe to say that I will be reading them as quickly as possible. The Farm is apparently very different than those books and is partly based on his own life. He is gay himself and his family went through a similar experience a few years ago. That explains why so much of the dialogue and character choices ring true. He’s also an incredibly skilled mystery writer, forever dangling answers in front of us and then snatching them away at the last second.
Smith eventually does answer all of our questions during the breathless, tense, and riveting final thirty pages. But he doesn’t stop there, oh no. Once we think we know everything, he pulls the rug out from under us and throws a last minute, devastating twist in our direction. It’s not a cheat either. You can look back through the book and realize that all the pieces of the puzzle were there. It’s a brilliant conclusion, scary and moving, and the final line of the novel is just perfect.
However, it’s not the answers to the many mysteries presented that make this such a satisfying read; it’s the level of depth that Smith gives to the characters and themes. Daniel’s relationship with his mom and dad is fractured forever by the events of the book and this serves as a mirror to how we interact with our own parents. It’s a universal truth that there are things about them that we will never know and maybe it’s better that way. Or maybe we need to accept that they were people with hopes and fears long before they ever had us and can never be as perfect as we hope. There’s also the recurring theme of memory and how we distort it for our own purposes. Maybe we remember a certain event one way just because we want to. And maybe we’ve forgotten another because it frightens us too much. These are the elements that elevate The Farm way above the average thriller and transform it into something of a masterpiece.