DISCLOSURE: I received a free copy of this book from the publisher, Grand Central Publishing, through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
Tom Rob Smith
352 pages (hardcover)
People who follow Mark Twain’s sage advice to write what you know usually fall into two categories: 1) the John Grishams of the world (people who sensationalize work or life experiences they have had and call it fiction) and 2) memoirists (people who sensationalize work or life experiences they have had and call it non-fiction). With his newest novel, Tom Rob Smith falls into the former category. But the life experiences on which his new novel are based require little sensationalization to make them creepy, thrilling, and gripping.
Here’s the real-life story (according to this story in The Telegraph), which happened to the author four years ago:
His parents (father English, mother Swedish) had been enjoying their retirement on a farm in Sweden for three years when his father phoned to tell Tom that his mother had been committed to an asylum. Shortly afterwards she discharged herself, flew to London, and attempted to convince Tom and his brother that their father had become involved in criminal activity and was trying to silence her.
(WARNING: if you intend to read the book, beware of reading that article in its entirety, as the rest of the details regarding the real-life events will give you clear clues as to the outcome of the novel).
Smith’s new novel, The Farm, follows a very similar path. Daniel is twenty-nine and grew up in a happy home in London. His Swedish mother and English father recently retired to Sweden, where they bought a farm in a rural town.
One day, Daniel gets a call from his dad. When he answers the phone, his dad is crying. Daniel has never heard his father cry before, so he knows something is very wrong. His father explains:
“Your mother . . . She’s not well.”
“It’s so sad.”
“Sad because she’s sick? Sick how? How’s Mum sick?”
Dad was still crying. All I could do was dumbly wait until he said:
“She’s been imaging things—terrible, terrible things.”
Daniel’s dad tells him that his mom has been admitted to a mental health facility. She has accused many important members of their new hometown of being involved in unspeakable crimes. She trusts no one, not even Daniel’s father.
Daniel promises he will fly to Sweden immediately. He books a ticket for the following morning. But, when he arrives at the airport, he receives a call from his dad. His mom is no longer in the hospital. She was voluntarily admitted, and she convinced the doctors that she was well enough to leave.
As soon as they hang up, Daniel’s phone rings again. It is his mother, speaking in hushed, paranoid tones. She will be on the next flight London and must see Daniel; he is the only person she can trust.
When his mom arrives a couple hours later, she looks ill and disheveled. She is clutching a leather satchel full of evidence. Daniel takes her to his apartment, where she proceeds to tell him her story in specific, chronological detail. She tells him she no longer loves his father, whom she believes is a party to the criminal ring. Daniel is the last person to whom she can turn, and she assures him: “If you refuse to believe me, I will no longer consider you my son.”
Daniel is forced to take sides and must determine the truth. Is his mother mentally ill, as his father tells him? Is she merely experiencing a psychotic episode that is causing her to act paranoid and spin this elaborate, conspiracy-laden tale? Or is his mother perfectly lucid? Is his father involved in horrible criminal acts in Sweden that he is trying to cover up by making his mom seem crazy?
I was sucked in by the beginning of this book (which I read before I found out that it was based on real-life experiences. If I knew that going in, I think I would have been even more into it). Most of the chapters consist of a couple paragraphs that set the stage or describe the action, told in first person by Daniel, followed by several pages of his mother’s monologue. Her speech is frantic and paranoid but extremely coherent and detailed. She is analytical and aware of how her behavior and ideas are being perceived by Daniel. She describes events and details that she later weaves back into her story, explaining their significance . . . but, often, her story reeks of conspiracy theory and seems utterly unbelievable. As a reader, you struggle to determine whether she’s totally bat shit crazy or completely sane. Both possibilities alternately seem equally likely. Thus, it’s very easy to empathize wholly with Daniel as he struggles to determine the truth in this bizarre situation.
The writing style is engrossing. I would be willing to bet that a large part of Daniel’s mom’s monologues were taken verbatim from some of Tom Rob Smith’s own conversations with his mother. It is utterly realistic, desperate, and panicked.
I have a feeling, however, that the end of the book (the last seventy-five pages or so) is where the book deviates from Smith’s real-life experiences. And this is where the book falters. The ending is satisfactory and successfully wraps up most (but not all) of the questions raised throughout the book. But, after three hundred pages of very gripping, realistic build-up, it comes off as anti-climactic and a little far-fetched.
Writing what he knew really worked for Smith. Perhaps he should have just written a memoir. I wouldn’t be surprised if the real-life ending was better than the fictionalized one.
- An Amazon Best Book of the Month for June 2014
Who should read it: Fans of psychological thrillers; anyone who thinks his/her mom is crazy (this will make you appreciate just how normal she actual is).
Want to read along with me? Reviews of these books are coming soon:
- The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary by Simon Winchester (a National Book Critics Circle Award Nominee for General Nonfiction; “masterfully researched and eloquently written, [this] is an extraordinary tale of madness, genius, and the incredible obsessions of two remarkable men that led to the making of the Oxford English Dictionary — and literary history”)
- The Moment of Everything by Shelly King (another of those “books for book lovers” set in a bookstore–in the same vein as The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry)
- The Anatomy of Dreams by Chloe Benjamin (long-listed for the 2014 Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize)