Tom Rob Smith’s new novel is built on an intriguing premise that unravels swiftly. A young Londoner named Daniel gets a call from his father in Sweden, where his parents have retired to a farm in a small rural community. “Your mother ... she’s not well,” his father tells him and begins to weep. Daniel’s mom, he says, has been “imagining things — terrible, terrible things” and has disappeared from the hospital where she’s being evaluated.
Daniel rushes off to Heathrow to fly to his father’s aid, but before he can board the plane he gets a call from his mother. “Daniel, listen to me carefully,” she says. “I’m on a payphone and don’t have much credit. I’m sure your father has spoken to you. Everything that man has told you is a lie. I’m not mad. I don’t need a doctor. I need the police. I’m about to board a flight to London.”
The he said/she said setup to The Farm, Smith’s fourth novel — and the first unconnected to his Child 44 trilogy — is enough to put any dutiful child into a tailspin, and Daniel is flummoxed. Smith offers a reasonable excuse for his uncertainty: As a child, he was close to his parents, but as an adult he has kept his distance, not wanting to tell them he’s gay or that he lives in an apartment with his older partner, Mark. Still, he agrees to meet his mother, Tilde, at the airport and bring her to his home.
And here is where The Farm quickly falls apart, after just a few pages, through Smith’s curious decision to tell almost the entire story through a series of far-fetched, overly detailed, stilted monologues from Tilde. She talks. Daniel listens and occasionally interrupts with a thought or question. We squirm. The book’s construction is so off-putting and contrived it robs the narrative of any momentum. Instead, it serves up chapter after chapter of vague threats, laughable explanations and dire warnings.
Tilde insists on telling her tale chronologically; if she summarizes the most “shocking” incidents, she warns, “you’ll be overwhelmed. ... A summary won’t do. ... I must lay down the details one by one.” Does Smith know he’s on shaky ground here? Is he trying to persuade readers to give the book a chance? Or maybe the idea is simply to cast doubt on Tilde’s sanity. But who cares if she’s right or wrong when her account is so dreary and drawn out?
Worst of all, her one-sided conversations are right out of a bad movie script:
“You mistrust that word?
You think it sounds unreal?
Villains are real. They walk among us. ... ”
Smith eventually springs Daniel in the last 50 pages or so, sending him off to Sweden to uncover the truth about the goings-on at the farm. Unlikely as it is, Daniel does get answers, and none of them will surprise you. With Child 44, about a serial killer at work in Stalin’s Russia, Smith hit upon a fantastic idea. But his instincts falter badly with The Farm, a suspense novel with no suspense at all.
Connie Ogle is the Miami Herald’s book editor.