Book Review: The Insect Farm
by Stuart Prebble
Mulholland Books, 2015
Stuart Prebble’s US debut, The Insect Farm, centers on two brothers, Roger and Jonathan Maguire, who form a close bond early in their childhood despite the fact that Roger is a full six years older than Jonathan. If anything, the age difference works in reverse, since Roger is portrayed as a vaguely simple-minded person, someone arrested in the primary colors and straightforward emotions of childhood. Even when they’re still young boys, Jonathan is considerably more complex, although fond of Roger’s devotion:
Even from the earliest days, Roger and I were inseparable. If Roger was a problem or had a problem or caused a problem, then none of these problems was mine. All I had was the sort of older brother that everyone would wish for: bigger than me, stronger than me, and who would do anything for me, as indeed I would for him.
Roger’s thoughts in that passage – his tone of selfishness and insincerity – are born out in the rest of the novel, in which Jonathan goes off to college and falls in love with a young woman named Harriet while Roger stays at home and becomes increasingly absorbed in the construction and elaboration of the insect farm in the novel’s title. By the time he eventually shows it to the young couple, it’s become the entire focus of his life:
It’s called a formicarium. It’s a way of keeping and studying ants. When you first put them in, you can see how they are scared and confused. They run around this way and that and seem to be in a panic. They hurry down whatever route is in front of them and bump into ends and don’t know what to do. But then gradually you see them learning about their surroundings, and after a while they know their way around, and you can see them scurrying back and forth carrying food. Before you know it they have organized themselves into their own way of doing things.”
“I was watching Roger carefully as he spoke and realized, not for the first time, how little I really knew about what went on inside that strange mind of his,” Jonathan thinks while he’s being given this little tour. “I had always known that he lived in a little world of his own, but the world he had constructed around him was far more elaborate and sophisticated than I ever would have thought possible.” When a happily amazed Harriet compares the elaborate ant farm to a pristine Garden of Eden, Roger is pleased and says, “I am, indeed, a benevolent God.”
As the novel somewhat ploddingly progresses, Jonathan enjoys less and less of the serene control Roger experiences; he begins to suspect Harriet of cheating on him, and here, as elsewhere in the book when dealing with domestic emotions, Prebble does a strong job of describing the “tangible, physical, corrosive agony that accompanies full-blown jealousy”:
The nearest I can get to conveying it is to think about a heavy weight in your stomach, or rather a heavy weight just above your stomach, sitting somewhere between your guts and your heart. A physical lump, with actual mass, just sitting there. It feels for all the world like a cancer or like a tumor that you know is going to turn into a cancer in years to come. A physical trauma that will trigger something debilitating which, in its turn, will eventually kill you.
Prebble’s novel is strongest when it’s on this territory of personal and domestic details; the “thriller” elements of The Insect Farm often feel curiously tacked on. Readers won’t have much trouble guessing one of the book’s two macabre climactic revelations, and the second revelation will doubtless leave them more puzzled than shocked. It’s never a good sign when the removal of a book’s allegedly thrilling plot-twists would probably end up strengthening it as a novel, but this is the state of things with The Insect Farm, which is smartly written but never quite feels entirely under its author’s control.