Smith has constructed a mystery made more inscrutable by distance and a lack of communication. Daniel, a young man in London, is confronted with the need to make an impossible choice between his mother and father, who left England for retirement on a farm in Sweden. Daniel’s perspective on his idyllic childhood, the model for his own relationship, is shattered by a frantic phone call from his father, Chris. He informs Daniel that his mother, Tilde, has had a breakdown in Sweden: “She’s been imagining things. Terrible, terrible things.”
Daniel’s rush to the airport for a flight to Sweden is interrupted by a call from Tilde, who declares, “I don’t need a doctor. I need the police.” Preparing to meet her at Heathrow, Daniel is caught between his compulsion to call his father and taking the time to listen to his mother’s story, an indecisive man forced to take action. Daniel’s ambivalence is a critical to the evolution of events, the truth of the opposing stories of Chris and Tilde, at odds for the first time in a marriage seldom marred by controversy in Daniel’s recollection. At least that has been Daniel’s assumption, his approach to his own relationship buoyed by the calm, nurturing household his parents provided.
Living with his lover, Mark, Daniel has managed to avoid visiting the farm and the disapproval he believes will accompany his revelation that he is a homosexual. Though Mark has been extraordinarily patient with his reticence, Daniel is suddenly caught up in a domestic drama that not only confounds him but forces him to examine what he treasures as a peaceful childhood with parents always in complete accord. Daniel’s dilemma escalates when he takes an emotionally distraught Tilde back to the London apartment. His mother clutches a battered satchel that contains the “evidence” she has so collected to document her case, first to her son, then to the authorities. Begging him not to speak to his father, whom she is certain will soon arrive in London, Tilde only asks to finish her tale before Daniel makes any decision. She has placed her faith in him, his ability to see the logic in her investigation into a murder.
Tilde becomes increasingly paranoid with the recitation of the facts, Daniel occasionally interrupting with questions for clarification. Tilde paints a different picture than what Daniel has imagined: a lonely existence in a remote location among strangers, the land of her birth not as welcoming as Tilde had expected. As the marriage develops first cracks then fissures, Tilde’s sense of isolation increases. She intuits the meaning of recent events with a critical eye, attuned to discrepancies in behavior both in her husband and their new acquaintances that lead her to suspect a terrible crime. With no one to trust, Tilde flees to London and her son.
The weight of the novel balances precariously on Tilde’s narrative, at times logical, at others bearing the marks of obsessive, unreasonable behavior. Like Daniel, the reader has no idea about the veracity of the woman’s claims or the evidence she offers as proof, a narrative that vacillates between tenacious and burdensome. Smith’s skill as a writer, his instinct for the limitations of human tolerance, delivers this tale from diatribe to tour de force. A twist so deviously hidden in plain sight leaves the reader stunned, shocked and euphoric that out of this chaos comes hope, a way forward that does not entail defeat. The Farm is as laden with symbolism and portent as an ancient folk tale of maidens and monsters.