(The southern Swedish rural countryside in winter)
When I began reading THE FARM, Tom Rob Smith’s new book I had certain expectations having read his trilogy of thrillers dealing with the Soviet Union; CHILD 44, THE SECRET SPEECH, and AGENT 6. From the first paragraph I grew curious, but very surprised. The story line was nothing like his previous books. This effort begins with a phone call from Chris, living in rural Sweden calling his son, Daniel who resides in London. Daniel’s parents had lived in London, but because their finances had succumbed to the 2008 recession they had taken what funds remained and purchased a small farm in Sweden, hoping to live out their retirement in that idyllic setting. Chris informs Daniel that his mother, Tilde was on her way to London, having been released from a psychiatric hospital. Chris had taken her there because of her strange behavior and he wanted to warn his son that doctors felt she was suffering from a psychosis and she was not to be believed once she arrived at Heathrow Airport. Each character seems to have a number of secrets that emerge during the course of the story. For Daniel, it was the fact that he was gay and living with his partner Mark. Daniel had been unable to tell his parents, which was why he had not visited them since their departure for Sweden. Once Tilde arrives, Daniel is faced with the core of the novel, was his mother mentally ill, or where her suspicions against his father true. Who was he to believe?
Most of the story is told by Tilde as she reads to Daniel from her Journal. She maintained the journal while she suspected that Chris and another farmer, Hakan Greggson, and others were involved in a criminal cover-up that she had investigated. Tilde argues that there was a conspiracy against her which is why she left Sweden, feeling the only one she could turn to was her son. As the narrative evolves Daniel questions whether he really knows either parent based on his mother’s strange presentation. He blames himself for neglecting his parents as he sees that the situation he is confronted with holds a great deal of information he was unaware of. Daniel wonders that if he had paid greater attention to what was occurring while he was growing up he would be able to make sense of what was now happening. Once his father follows his mother to London the novel becomes even more seductive as it draws the reader further into its plot.
The question throughout is whether Tilde is mentally incapacitated. But one must ask, is her behavior abnormal, or is the situation she has been placed in abnormal. As the existential phenomenologist, Thomas Szaz argued, it is not the person who is ill, but the environment that they must survive in that is responsible. Perhaps, Tilde is just behaving as she is as a coping mechanism to survive an emotionally debilitating situation. The reader doesn’t really know as they continue the journey that the author has prepared for them. It has been suggested by another review that some of what Smith has created is based on his own experiences. Be that as it may, the narrative is in part suspenseful, and in part deeply distressing. I will stop here as to not delve any deeper because the story will continue with many twists and turns as Daniel tries to come to some sort of closure as to how he feels about his parents, and what is the truth. In a sense the book is all about truth and the journey to find peace. It is a superb story and Tom Rob Smith has provided further evidence as to what a talented writer he has become. I read the book in two sittings; if you open its cover, and turn the pages you should experience the same desire to read on.