Saturday, 21 June 2014

Midsummer: The Farm by Tom Rob Smith

published 2014


During my lunch break, I ventured to the maypole to watch the midsommar performance. Students dressed in traditional costume were dancing. While I was watching, someone tapped me on the shoulder and I turned to see Mia, not dressed in white with flowers in her hair, as she had been on the beach, but holding a plastic refuse bag, picking up rubbish. She told me she’d specifically requested the job since she had no desire to dress up and be stared at…



I gently took hold of Mia’s arm and guided her centre stage, calling everyone together. Improvising, I began talking about the history of the midsommar festival. With the entire party gathered around me, including HÃ¥kan, I explained how this was the night of the year when magic was strongest in Sweden, how our great-grandparents would dance as a fertility ritual to impregnate the earth and bring full harvests to the farms.




observations: I wanted to like this book, and was confident that I would. I haven’t read his earlier trilogy of thrillers set in the Soviet Union, but at least one of them – like this book – got rave reviews from people I trust. This one was an easy read, and quite compelling, but I was hoping for something more like literary fiction, and it didn’t fall into that category.

Narrator Daniel gets an unexpected phonecall from his deeply distressed father: his parents went to live in Sweden a year earlier, and now the mother (who is Swedish) is deeply disturbed, has mental health issues. The mother discharges herself from a mental hospital, comes to London and tries to convince her son that it is she who is sane: she makes serious accusations against her husband and some new friends he has made in their new home village in a remote part of Sweden.

An enticing setup, anyone would agree. Most of the book consists of Daniel listening to a monologue from his mother about their move to Sweden and what happened there. She has a bag containing notes, journals and bits of paper that she considers to be evidence to support her case. Daniel and the reader have to try to decide where the truth lies.

But then – it’s written so the reader can look at what the mother says and think ‘maybe that’s as she describes, but it could equally well be X.’ It’s all like that, and that became wearisome. And in the end the reader is thinking ‘So we’re constantly told, it’s her or him telling the truth, one of the other’ – and that isn’t very interesting, not over a whole book – ‘but, oh, I’ve read books before. Maybe it’s not going to be that simple. So what might it be?’ I did not find anything much about the ending surprising, other than the fact that a few things were unexplained – the mushrooms?

A quick holiday read, but not more than that for me: the writing was pedestrian to the point of being childish, apart from some hammered-home symbolism, and for example Daniel’s homelife, and the fact that he had never told his parents he was gay, didn’t really feature at all, except apparently to show they were a family with secrets.

The pictures of midsummer celebrations come from the Swedish Heritage Board.

For a varied selection of previous midsummer entries - Bridget Jones, Stig of the Dump and others - click on the label below. 

10 comments:

  1. Moira - Sorry to hear that you didn't dive into this and stay engaged. I'll admit I've not (yet) read it, but like you, I got enthusiastic recos from people I trust. Hmmm.......not so sure now. I'll have to think about it, but in the meantime, I do have to admit I like the smooth writing style.

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    1. I didn't like this (what, you could tell?) but I still wouldn't rule out reading something else by him, as I have heard such good things....

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  2. Glen pointed this out to me. He had read the first two in the other series. As described it doesn't sound like the premise was handled very well. That is OK, the last thing I need is more books to read.

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    1. I'm interested now, having read this, in looking up some of the reviews of his earlier work. I had high hopes of this one, but sadly could not be telling people they must read it...

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  3. Well at least your reading all the way to the end has confirmed for me that my decision to leave it forever unfinished was a good one (I have up about a quareter of the way through when I realised I didn't care which of them was telling the truth and I sensed there really wasn't anything more to the book than this premise). I learned after I gave up the book is based on the author's real experience of his mother having a breakdown of some sort - I'm not convicned real stories always make the best breeding ground for fictional ones.

    I've read all 4 of Smith's books now and none of the last 3 live up to the promise shown by the first one that garnered all the attention. I keep hoping he'll be able to recreate that experience but perhaps it was an anomoly or the subsequent pressure has been too great.

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    1. That's very interesting Bernadette. I will definitely read the first one, one day, as it seems to have been very good... but am unlikely to read any others by him. I think you are right - for a mystery writer, a true story may well not be the right way to go. And in this case it having a basis in truth adds an uncomfortable feeling to the whole affair.

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  4. When I saw this one pop up, I was hoping for a rave review as I have this on my wishlist. A bit of weekend contemplation has decided me on no more books (we'll see how long that lasts!) - so at least I can delete this one off the list. I have something earlier by him which I will stick to.

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    1. I suppose I have helped you then! As I say above to Bernadette, I will one day read the first one, which by popular acclaim seems to be the best, is that the one you have?

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  5. Child 44 and Secret Agent - I checked and it's two. My sister who I see, oh at least once every three or four years recommended him to me!

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    1. I think Child 44 is the one people really rated, isn't it? Perhaps I'll wait till you've read it....

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