Daniel, the narrator of Tom Rob Smith’s first stand-alone psychological thriller The Farm (after the Child 44 trilogy), is a somewhat unsuccessful landscape designer in London. He thinks that his parents are retired landscape retailers now living in his mother’s native Sweden. However, they are not happy, successful or really retired. His parents think that Daniel is a successful landscape designer living alone in London, when really Daniel is in a long-term relationship with an older man who more or less supports him.
If these were the only secrets this family hides from each other the novel might still be interestingly driven, but there is so much more. Daniel’s father phones him from Sweden that his mother is seriously mentally ill and has been admitted to a mental institution for evaluation. Reeling from this shock, Daniel then gets a call from his mother that she is on her way to London to enlist his aid in divulging terrible crimes in which his father is implicated. She has evidence. Thus begins a long and involved power struggle in which Daniel is pulled back and forth between these two narratives and the parents he so well loves and always has.
The mother, Tilde, requires Daniel to believe her based on a tortuous narration of the evidence she presents. He must believe her or he is no longer her son. The father, Chris, insists that Daniel aid him in getting their loved one back to the institution that can restore her from her state of paranoid delusion. Everyone has a stake in this and Daniel is the lynchpin.
Tilde’s narrative is long on very small facts she feels add up to a conspiracy in the murder of a young girl from the village they now live near. Smith strikes a devilish balance between believable detail and paranoid detail, narration and desperation on Tilde’s part. As she moves the story along, knowing that the father, Chris, must be on his way to London, the locations change so that Tilde can continue in “safety”, but all these maneuverings make us doubt Tilde’s balance. This is a very good case of all the facts maybe adding up but the voice of the narrator beginning to seem unreliable. Is she just too desperate of just too crazy? Is Chris the loving and dedicated husband or just desperate to get his wife safely locked up with secrets he’s a part of?
Smith is clever in arranging a false denouement that gives Daniel a last-act chance to follow the line of Tilde’s story back to Sweden. There he can see all the pieces of the puzzle first hand and begin to explain to himself what may have happened. It’s much to Smith’s credit that this process reveals more than Daniel or the reader expects, and that when the story resolves it does so naturally with no red herrings or hidden clues, only terrible misunderstandings all around. Just as Daniel is bounced around by his parents in this scary family tale, the reader is jostled back and forth as well but lands with satisfaction on a good conclusion.