"Foe" Book Review
Written by Tony Jones
Published by Scribner UK
Written by Iain Reid
2019, 260 pages, Fiction
Released on 24th January, 2019
The second genre-bending novel from Iain Reid, Foe, truly knocked me for six and is an early contender for my novel of the year with its dark and absorbing narrative. How do you describe it? Arguably science-fiction, possibly dystopian, part thriller and ultimately a quiet meditation on marriage. Because it is so tricky to classify, I hope it is not overlooked by horror and genre fans. In its brief exquisitely crafted 260 pages, Foe has an irresistible sense of dread that builds as the reader approaches the end. It is so palpable you can almost taste it. Once the reader passes page 150, I defy anyone to put it down willingly!
The less you know about the plot of Foe the better and so I am going to be deliberately vague with this review. It has been covered in a couple of big newspapers, which, for my taste, include far too many spoilers. This very literary novel is both slow and features little in the way of action, or the sort of thing you might expect to see in a horror novel, however, it is never dull. If you enjoy character development, atmosphere and complex personal anxieties, all merge together creating a slow-burning page-turner then this is unmissable.
Junior and Henrietta (Hen) live in the middle of nowhere and the plot never discloses where this is, only mentioning an unnamed nearby city they never visit. Late one night a car arrives and the driver, Terrance, reveals that Junior has won a lottery and that he is now on a short-list to travel, and help colonise, space. Junior is not pleased with this offer (and hopes he progresses no further than the short-list), as he does not want to leave his wife and live in space for an undisclosed period of time. However, it is obvious that he is in no position to refuse this offer Terrance has made on behalf of the company OuterMore, which is obviously very powerful. Before leaving the shocked couple, Terrance notes that this selection process can take years and that they will not hear from him again unless there is some progress in Junior’s case. Two years go by and they hear nothing from their unwanted visitor, with the big question hanging over marriage like a shroud. Until… and that’s it for plot spoilers!
The setting and narrative of Foe is outstanding. So little is explained about this near-future world, you find yourself reading between the lines for the smallest clues. For example, why would the couple be financially fined if the government discovered they kept a few chickens hidden in their barn? It is also a science fiction (or is it?) novel, with absolutely no science within its pages, which is explained to the reader. In this respect, it reminds me slightly of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go or Michel Faber’s Under the Skin, and Iain Reid should take that as a major compliment.
This short novel is a genuine three-hander and includes only Junior, Hen and Terrance dealing with the emotional fallout of having this potentially life-changing news, with recriminations and insecurities hanging over their seven-year marriage. Foe is seen from the first-person point of view of Junior and so for much of the novel we see the impact of the lottery and its emotional strain upon his wife.
I’ve been deliberately vague in this review, but prepare yourself for a genuinely terrific twist towards the conclusion of the novel. Even beyond the twist there is further lingering and unsettling ambiguity right to the final page, which merit further discussion with others who have read the book. After finishing Foe, the reader realises there are lots of clues and clever half-truths throughout the novel which become more obvious.
Iain Reid is no stranger to clever psychological thrillers and I would also recommend I’m Thinking of Ending Things, which made the short-list of the prestigious Shirley Jackson Award a couple of years ago. A young couple, who have been dating for only six weeks, are on a car journey to visit Jake’s parents. The girlfriend is never named, but the story is told from her perspective as she is “thinking of ending things” with Jake. For much of this brief two-hundred-page novel, it’s very hard to tell where the story is heading, but keep your eyes peeled, as clues are dropped here and there. You’ll realise pretty early on the girlfriend is an unreliable narrator and throws some real curveballs with a terrific ending that will have you returning to the first page of the novel. I’m Thinking of Ending Things is a great debut, but Foe completely blows it away and heralds a major new talent of weird fiction who should be embraced by the horror world.
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