Iain Reid’s novels fall into one of my favourite fiction categories: works of suspense that aren’t necessarily crime novels, but take the conventions and tropes necessary to inhabit a familiar genre skin. I’m Thinking of Ending Things (2016), Reid’s first novel after several works of nonfiction, put the thriller through a philosophical blender, as the female narrator (“the girlfriend”) keeps grappling with the thought of the end of her life, her relationship with her boyfriend, and the many secrets he appears to be keeping from her. When they are finally revealed, they are less about external action—despite the bloody violence of it—and more about inner turmoil.
Reid began his career in nonfiction, with work in The New Yorker and a RBC Taylor Emerging Writer Award win for his works, including his 2013 memoir, The Truth About Luck: What I Learned on My Road Trip with Grandma. As a novelist, he conveys much in a deceptively minimalist manner, one that has rightfully drawn comparisons to the work of Michel Faber and José Saramago. Words aren’t wasted. The action, if present at all, moves unhurriedly, until the reader realizes she is turning the pages faster than she can control. The surprises and shocks aren’t overt, even when dealing with sensational, fantastical elements, but by being covert they burrow under the skin like a parasite pretending to be a symbiote.
Where I’m Thinking of Ending Things deconstructed the thriller, fragmenting it through dialogue and scenes that fell between the waiting cracks of action and thought, Foe, Reid’s new novel, attempts something similar for the speculative novel. The characters, however grounded they may seem to be in reality, are each a little off—floating in a liminal space, together and apart, until their colliding with one another produces unfathomable sparks. If Ending Things drew from Under the Skin, an early work of Michel Faber, then Foe calls out to Faber’s most recent novel, The Book of Strange New Things, where space, time, and marriage all figure prominently.
“We don’t get visitors. Never have. Not out here.” Junior, Foe’s narrator, lives on a farm with his wife, Henrietta (whom he always calls Hen.) It’s in the middle of somewhere, but it might as well be nowhere, for the two of them live in a state of cohabitative isolation. Theirs is a simple, easy life, unhurried, unruffled by the ever-growing canola plants outside their windows and conflicts far beyond the farm limits. That is, until a pair of green headlights shines onto the front door, and Junior is startled by the arrival of a man named Terrance.
He brings what he calls good news: Junior has been chosen by OuterMore, the company that employs Terrance, for a special project. The details are vague. He throws around works like “installation” and “building our own planet” and “Life Gel” and Junior mirrors the reader’s confusion. Especially when, after explaining everything to Junior and Hen, Terrance leaves, and nothing happens. Not for months. Not for years.
But the idea burrows its way into Junior’s mind. He has been chosen for…a task? No longer is his life easy. No longer is his manner unruffled. “We carry on. But I think about his visit every day.” Now he is aware of simmering tensions with Hen. Now he is struck by something taking place a little beyond his field of vision. There is something larger at work. Far larger than what his marriage to Hen can hold.
What began, or seemed to begin, as quiet literary fiction mixed with a mildly futuristic backdrop slowly morphs into a more unsettling, uncanny valley version of domestic noir, one where the proverbial Girl isn’t Gone, but by staying put, becomes all the more mysterious. Because Junior is narrating, we only view Hen from his vantage point. She appears ordinary at first, in cutoff shorts, a black tank top, and damp hair. When Junior says “She looks beautiful. Truly,” we are meant to distrust the statement. Is he deluding himself, or Terrance, upon arrival, or some unseen person?
When Junior wonders about his life before Hen, he dismisses it as not mattering: “Now is what’s important, not then. Hen is what’s important. She’s my focus, my everything. We all occupy a social district, and I had my place: middling, undistinguished, irrelevant. I was the physical embodiment of the numeral mean.” This unremarkable life had no purpose, he believes, until he met his wife, who “gave me a purpose. A reason to exist.”
By saying so Junior undercuts himself, and he seems to know it. Can a person really give another person a reason to exist? It seems absurd. But the stubborn clinging to the safety of the life he has with Hen, however remote she appears to the reader—Junior tells us she means everything, but does not say why, if he even knows it—serves as a balm. It is living as meditation, until it isn’t.
Terrance, of course, will return. The space exploration offer becomes more concrete. Hen’s motives toward both men will grow more opaque. Junior will feel the seeds of distrust and paranoia more openly. And Reid writes it all with controlled understatement, stark beauty in each word, doled out with the care of a parent spoon-feeding a baby. So much of Foe will zero in on, as Junior describes one tableau of the three of them, “a familiar situation that is making me increasingly uncomfortable.”
The late-game twist is certainly unmooring, and is bound to make the reader immediately want to revisit the novel’s beginning. But what most disturbed me about the novel happens a few pages before Junior’s world is inverted, flung into metaphorical space, when he and Hen discuss why people stay together in marriages and long-term relationships. Junior is convinced it’s because of love. Hen says otherwise:
They stay together because it’s expected, because it’s what they know. They try to make it work, to endure it, and end up living under some kind of spiritual anesthetic. They go on, but they are numb. And the more I think about it, the more I think there’s nothing worse than to live your life this way. Detached, but abiding. It’s immoral.
The speech disturbs because finally, finally, the reader has some sense of Hen after she has remained opaque throughout most of Foe. What took so long? Why withhold her from us? Junior, set for space, where time stretches out into light years, will find out. But we already know: he’s not the story. Hen is, and always was, and that is what clinches Foe as one of the most unsettling novels of this year.