TOM ROB SMITH
SIMON SCHUSTER 351pp €14.99; e book €11.30
Tom Rob Smith burst on the scene in 2008 with his debut novel, Child 44. The book, the first of three set in the 1950s Soviet Union, featured the hunt for a serial killer and was loosely based on the real life mass murderer Andrei Chikatilo, the Rostov Ripper. It was a publishing sensation, won several prestigious awards and is now being filmed.
There are no Rippers in his latest book, a taut and atmospheric psychological thriller which keeps the reader guessing until the very end. With “The Farm,” Rob Smith breaks new ground, geographically and stylistically. The Soviet Union is abandoned to the rubbish bin of history. The setting here is present day rural Sweden.
Anyone acquainted with Swedish and Scandinavian Noir will recognise many familiar elements : the hauntingly beautiful but bleak landscape and climate, rural isolation, the dour religious beliefs and biblical references, the social taboos. Rob Smith writes of it all with assurance – his mother is Swedish.
The narrator, Daniel, in London, is phoned from Sweden by his distraught father to be told his mother, Tilde, is ill, committed after a psychotic episode. As he prepares to fly to Sweden he is contacted by Tilde, released and en route to London. She claims everything his father has said is a lie, denies she’s insane and asks that he meets her. She arrives, agitated but coherent , and demanding a hearing.
A major theme in the novel is trust in a family. Daniel is gay, something he has kept from his parents. His secret becomes an irrelevancy as he realises how little he actually knows about them. For Tilde has secrets also and Daniel is presented immediately with the dilemma of which parent to believe or trust.
Much of the novel is a monologue, Tilde’s chilling account of what she claims happened to her since arriving in Sweden. Her dream of an idyllic retirement to a farm in the country of her birth soon falls apart. She is an outsider and feels ostracised by the locals. There are hints of incest, of trafficking , of sinister crimes and conspiracy by a rural community closing ranks. Worse, Daniel’s British father appears to collude and fall under the malign influence of a wealthy and powerful neighbour.
Tilde is committed but escapes and turns to Daniel for help. Her story is plausible, but totally circumstantial and could be viewed very differently. Daniel becomes unwilling judge and jury.
The story is compelling, well-crafted and gripping . Daniel in turn believes, then doubts, his mother’s story. There are several twists and sub plots, with the suspense maintained up to the surprise ending.
An excellent and unusual thriller. It will do well .