Book review: ‘FOE’ by Iain Reid

(no spoilers)

Let’s not beat around the bush here – I’m a shallow reader and a book cover magpie. Give me any cover art that’s remotely bold or striking, and I’ll give you my money. The cover of ‘FOE’ reminded me of another of my favorite books: ‘This Book Is Full of Spiders: Seriously, Dude, Don’t Touch It.’ by David Wong. Ahh, the nostalgia.

‘FOE’ has a fantastic cover and the brain of Iain Reid behind it. I’m also no stranger to him, having read and reviewed his debut bestseller ‘I’m thinking of ending things’ earlier this year and thinking it was a right cracker. 

So, cover in hand and author in heart, I cracked the spine and started on the first chapter, waiting to be wowed. But unfortunately, it doesn’t live up to the hype. More than that, it was actually a struggle to finish.

It’s an interesting premise: Junior lives with his wife Henriette, far from anyone else. One day, a strange man comes to the door and tells them that Junior has been selected for a space program, and together they all need to prepare his life and his person to go away for a while. It follows the crumbling of his relationship, and the more and more outrageous demands put upon them by the strange man who keeps visiting. 

Who is the strange man? Why is Henrietta acting so weird? What is happening to Junior? Why is his dialogue not in “quotes” when everyone else’s is? What the heck is with the beetles?

I went looking for a gif of beetles and all of them made me feel itchy and scratchy and sick, so you get an illustration, no more.

The reviewers describe the novel as “unexpected”, “mind-bending” and “hiding a dark secret”, and true – there is a twist at the end. Maybe I was in the perfect frame of mind that day (or maybe it’s because Iain Reid’s books follow a similar double-twist theme), but by page 25 I’d already guessed the ending. That’s not a humble brag – I’m usually terrible at guessing plot twists so if it was easy for me, I have no doubt your average eight year old could make a quick hop-skip-and-jump to the same conclusion.

From then on, it seemed like all the traps and clues for the reader were clumsily laid, and I got bored. 

The themes – those of humanity, of awareness, of the redeeming act of noticing tiny details (for both the character and the reader) – are pretty much shoved down your throat from the beginning. And yet, unlike ‘I’m thinking of ending things’ which managed to whisk you along a literal (car) journey, ‘FOE’ felt like it remained remarkably static, with very little happening.

I felt like part of this was deliberate. Perhaps to create a haze, a false sense of security designed to make the reader complacent and have them skim-read rather than pay attention to little details – but to me, it simply led to an unenjoyable read. 

By the time we got around to the ‘shocking finale’ that had been obvious all along, I didn’t really care what became of Henrietta or Junior anyway. Which sucked because the twist requires a bit of emotional investment to understand the gravity of it. 

I tried to imagine I hadn’t got the ending, and focus instead on the language itself, in particular the dialogue (as this is one of the things that I think Iain Reid is fantastically good at). However, the stylistic choice of having everything Junior say out of “quotes” (and therefore have his thoughts and spoken words balanced in importance) was too jarring a reading experience for me. Paragraphs like this were everywhere:

“Have you and Hen ever lived anywhere else?”

I hate this question. It bothers me. 

This is the only house we’ve lived in, I answer.  

I was constantly going back to comb over a sentence and check whether it was thought and not spoken. It has further relevance later on in the book as this style is played with and shared among characters – but it wasn’t fun to read. 

On the front cover, ‘FOE’ is described as ‘genre-bending’ by Liz Nugent, and I’m inclined to agree, if that means taking some of the most sticky and difficult parts of genres and smashing them together. 

Still, I seem to be the minority. There are lots of really positive reviews out there.

What do you think?

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