“Write what you know.” Mark Twain’s sage advice to budding authors has been much quoted but, until now, Tom Rob Smith chose to ignore it. His trilogy of Soviet thrillers – Child 44, The Secret Speech and Agent 6 – made excellent reading, but the life and times of an agent in Moscow’s secret police seemed to have little or no bearing on the day-to-day reality of a man in his early thirties living in London. Smith’s widely acclaimed trilogy didn’t so much fly in the face of Twain’s advice, as point out that fiction is, by its nature, an act of make-believe (even if those books were based on real-life crimes).
And so, we come to The Farm, the story of Daniel, 29, and his Swedish mother and English father, who have given up their business to retire to a rural idyll (the farm of the title) in her home country. Daniel lives in London with his partner, Mark, and, as the book opens, he receives a phone call from his father, Chris, to tell him that his mother, Tilde, appears to be having some sort of psychotic breakdown. Next thing we know, Tilde is on Daniel’s doorstep, telling him that there is nothing wrong with her but that there is a conspiracy to get her incarcerated because she knows too much.
It is a breathless opening salvo, and the knowledge that this precise scenario actually happened to the author only tightens the tension with the clarion ring of truth.
The great bulk of the book is a two-hander between Daniel and Tilde as she sets out the evidence for her claims. It becomes a sort of therapy session: Daniel listens patiently as his mother brings forth notes and exhibits to back up her claims. And those claims are essentially this: when Tilde and Chris moved to Sweden, a charismatic and successful neighbour by the name of Hakan Greggson immediately set out to befriend Chris and shame Tilde. He did this by means of subtle snubs at social gatherings and, while the entire area is in his thrall, Tilde alone senses something sinister and sets out to investigate. It is, as far as Tilde is concerned, the truth that she uncovers as part of this operation that has brought a powerful group of locals together to discredit her and, ultimately, have her locked up, from where she can cause them no more harm.
The narrative is propelled by the decision that Daniel has to make: does he believe the version of events as laid out by Tilde, or does he reach the same conclusion as his father – that Tilde is unwell and needs immediate care and treatment. Daniel is, as far as his mother is concerned, judge and jury as well as admitting physician.
One of the many fascinating aspects of The Farm is the fact that all of its main protagonists are harbouring secrets. Daniel has not told his parents about his partner, Tilde has never revealed to her son a key event in her teenage years, and so on.
To give away any more would be to spoil The Farm’s many surprises. “Impossible to put down” has become as overused a thing to say about books as the one saying that the people writing them should stick with what they know. In the case of The Farm, it is close to true (I read it in about three sittings and real life felt like an impertinent interruption whenever I had to put it down).
Child 44 was one of those rare books that managed to thrill both the Booker judges and the Richard and Judy brigade. The Farm is, perhaps, even better. It is so good, in fact, that you will finish it quickly and then be jealous of anyone who hasn’t read it yet.