Domestic thrillers along the lines of Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train have boasted arguably unexpected staying power after climbing to the top of bestseller lists and remaining in the mass-market spotlight. Publishers are now eager to sign up psychologically provocative, screen-ready titles.
Iain Reid’s first novel, 2016’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things, was a contribution to the genre with its finger on the pulse, telling the story of a woman’s first visit with her boyfriend’s parents. The desolate rural setting and vaguely sinister characters stoked a foreboding mood before the tension ramped up to a disturbing, mind-bending conclusion. (The narrative convolutions seemed a perfect fit for Charlie Kaufman, who optioned the book for film this past January.)
Reid’s follow-up is a thriller in the same vein, with a similarly exciting premise, albeit less impressive in its delivery. Foe takes place some time in the future, as indicated by tidbits Reid disperses throughout – cars are self-driving, owning livestock is prohibited, and private companies are experimenting with interplanetary human settlements. This last development is of direct concern to the novel’s protagonist, a grain farmer named Junior, who along with his wife, Hen, receives an abrupt visit from a representative of one of these companies. Junior learns he’s been selected to travel to space, willingly or otherwise. Leading up to the mission, he will be monitored closely, for a number of reasons – one of them particularly unsettling (no spoilers here).
Foe’s premise is strong and innovative and should also lend itself well to adaptation. (The novel has been optioned by Anonymous Content, the production company behind Oscar winners Spotlight and The Revenant, as well as the USA Network series Mr. Robot.) The novel’s execution, however, leaves something to be desired. The reader is kept waiting with a promise of future action and the knowledge that something uncanny is going on, but not much happens.
There’s little description, literary flair, or context beyond the moment-to-moment chronology to compensate for the lack of incident. To Reid’s credit, this seems a result of some deliberate authorial choices, rather than a lack of skill or insight. For example, though the cast of only three main characters and the remote setting serve as a hindrance to narrative momentum, these aspects also bolster the eerie, isolated atmosphere of the story.
The novel’s conversational style, though somewhat understandable given what the reader eventually finds out about the narrator, makes the bulk of the book feel tedious – at times it reads more like a draft for a screenplay than a novel. The interactions between the three characters can feel unrealistic or forced, which – like many of the novel’s apparent shortcomings – is partially justified by the ending.
With that ending, Reid prudently redeems himself. The story’s quiet tension comes to a climax with a surprising revelation that flips everything readers thought they knew on its head. Then a final, additional twist makes for a dramatic conclusion to a deliberately paced tale.