Published by Gallery/Scout Press
Publication date: September 4, 2018
Genres: Book Clubs, Contemporary, Fiction, Literary, Science Fiction
Junior and Henrietta live on a small farm. They are isolated from everyone, but close to each other. When Terrance arrives and tells them that Junior has been selected to participate in a program building a much-needed space community they are puzzled by the news, but accept Terrance’s assurances that it is an amazing opportunity. He tells them they have two years before Junior needs to leave, but that he will be gone for years after that. Which is not great, except he promises that modern technology means Henrietta won’t be left alone. Which is as much of the plot as can be shared in Iain Reid’s unnerving new novel, Foe.
Foe is a novel of questions. Junior and Henrietta have some, but not as many as you might think. Even if they’re not happy about it, they accept that Junior has been chosen from data collected from their individual screens—devices that sound much like tablets/iPads. Their lives are simple and quiet and Junior, in particular, is not a man that questions.
I’m not an observant person. I see what I see, and the rest doesn’t matter. What’s the point? Why bother taking notice of everything going on around you, filling up your mind with irrelevant details and excess information? What’s going to happen will happen regardless.
But while Henrietta doesn’t question, she does seem off to Junior. Rather than move closer in the time they have left she becomes distant. When Terrance reappears in their lives for Junior’s final preparations before leaving, things become even more strained.
Foe is a small book—under 300 pages, but I read it in one sitting. Reid’s sentences are short, clean, and neat and Foe’s chapters brief and to the point. All things that should evoke a sense of calm and certainty. But from the novel’s opening sentences there is nothing but a growing sense of unease. Even if the words being spoken and the actions taken seem innocuous on the surface, they feel freighted with meaning underneath. Reid fosters this feeling of something-not-right by seasoning Foe with terminology that is immediately recognizable to readers as current hot topic subjects: data collection, virtual reality, 3-D printing, algorithms, industrial farming, and the need to find another place for humans to live.
The large scale uncomfortable feeling is readily apparent in Foe, with things like a corporation that can conscript people to work in outer space and monitor private conversations. But it’s Reid going smaller that makes Foe an onion novel, with each layer revealing more of the truth while still hiding another layer. One layer is straightforward science fiction, but another is a disquieting look at marriage and how well we can ever know another person. A simple monologue from Henrietta to Junior
“There are so many instances when I’ve expected you to understand how I’m feeling, and it just doesn’t happen. It’s so discouraging, draining…Honestly, I rarely feel happy. And I don’t want to have to tell you everything. I shouldn’t have to. Not if you’re paying attention, even just a bit, considering me in a way that’s not just superficial.”
feels almost as unsettling as Junior’s sessions with Terrance in preparation for his departure.
A quick read that will engender a lot of conversation, I’d strongly recommend Foe for anyone in a book club. Understated in setting, characters, and plot, the novel expands exponentially with suspense. Reid manages to keep the reader off-balance from beginning to end, subtly creating tension in a way that is chilling. No matter how you slice Foe it is a gem of a novel.