The Farm

By Tom Rob Smith

Grand Central Publishing. 368 pp. $26

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Reviewed by Derrick Nunnally

Daniel's a guy with a healthy batch of first-world problems.

He's stalled in his London career, but his partner, a lawyer named Mark, makes enough money to support both of them. He can't figure out how to come out to his placidly married parents, so he keeps ducking out of trips to visit them in their retirement on the idyllic Swedish farm they cashed out of London real estate to buy.

Unfortunately, The Farm isn't the tale of how a new, pastoral estate gives Daniel's parents the serenity to embrace his long-guarded secret. While he's going about life in London, a sudden series of frantic messages from his parents forces poor Daniel to confront the fact that buying into Swedish rurality has shattered his family. Depending on whose side he believes, either his mother's gone raving mad, or else his father has joined a sinister conspiracy at the outset of what was supposed to be their peaceful retirement.

Daniel's mother, freshly sprung from an asylum, shows up in London with a story that casts her as the persecuted sleuth of a complex drama - and sets Daniel, and the reader, grasping for clues to whether she's credible or so psychotic that she's torn the family apart. All he knows for sure is they've run quickly out of money and tranquility, and he has to choose between their equally compelling bizarre claims about the root of their troubles.

"I didn't know - one moment I was sure she was sick with paranoia and fear," observes Daniel, in one pause in his mother's narration. "In the next moment her paranoia and fear seemed justified, and I found myself feeling it too."

The Farm comes on the heels of Tom Rob Smith's best-selling Child 44 thriller trilogy about a string of Soviet-era murders and their consequences. The novel's narrative style bounces between the long, sometimes rambling story Daniel's mother tells and Daniel's own bafflement about how to balance her wild allegations against the messages he's getting from his father, pursuing her from Sweden for, he says, her own mental health.

It's easy to get unbalanced shuttling between the perspectives of mother and son, and framing up the mystery as a story-about-listening-to-a-story robs the action of some immediacy, like piecing together a sordid crime spree by listening from the jury box to a shaky witness' extended testimony.

The mother's conversation might be too long-winded to be entirely believable. Through it, Smith evokes a vivid, lurid landscape: a small, repressed Scandinavian town controlled by a tight cadre, a dilapidated farm - sold at a bargain price, apparently to lure in outside eyes to the isolated community - and the fast-widening chasm in the marriage of Daniel's parents. Her tale conjures a rustic Sweden that seems to have changed little in the decades since she grew up on her own countryside farm, and the son's skeptical listening comes against the backdrop of a London of posh hotels and monied modernity. She tells of giant elk and salmon, legions of tiny carved wooden trolls, hermits and town festivals. It's a litany of Sweden noir, overshadowed by (who else?) a corrupt local land baron and his cronies all over the town.

Because the mystery is mapped out secondhand - we're reading about how Daniel reacts to what his mother says - the suspense often slows down just when the reader's pulse picks up. Credit Smith with building a plot gripping enough to withstand his framing device. However, the power of his narrative momentum occasionally cuts against the book when stoicism prevails over the compulsion for a gratifying emotional outburst. Perhaps it's a Scandinavian thing.

By the time the book hits its climax, Daniel's mother has - as she predicts - been chased to London, though she remains ahead of the pursuers long enough to launch Daniel into his own exploration of dark family secrets (to which he reacts with an uncommon stone-faced resolve) in hopes of solving the book's core mystery: How much can he trust his mother's sanity? How much (if any) of the haunting small-town brutality she described is a paranoid delusion?

The Farm sustains its high dramatic pitch from London to Sweden and back through an immersive and tough-to-predict series of revelations about falsehoods and fantasies. Its readers end up seeing the bucolic as sinister - which, come to think of it, is what set off Daniel's unfortunate mother.