Book Review: The Insect Farm

Thursday 19 February 2015 by

Curtis Brown, Stuart Prebble, The Insect Farm, Book, Alma BooksThe Insect Farm by Stuart Prebble

Published by Alma Books

Publishes March 2015

Brothers Jonathan and Roger Maguire each has an obsession. For Jonathan, it is his beautiful and talented girlfriend Harriet. For Roger, it is the elaborate universe he has constructed in a shed in their parents’ garden, populated by millions of tiny insects.

But Roger lives in an impenetrable world of his own and, after the mysterious death of their parents, his brother Jonathan is forced to give up his studies to take care of him. This obligation forces Jonathan to live apart from Harriet – further fuelling his already jealous nature.

Their lives are abruptly shattered by a sudden and violent death, and Jonathan is drawn into a cat-and-mouse game with the police. Does roger know more than he is letting on? A cleverly plotted mystery with a shock ending, The Insect Farm – Stuart Prebble’s awaited new novel – will linger in the mind of its readers.


The next book in the Curtis Brown Book Group is another book that I would never necessarily pick up. But it seems I am destined to read mysteries for now, and The Insect Farm is just that.

Centred around Jonathan and Roger, and their interlocking lives, you know from the outset there is a murder. Told from the point of view of Jonathan, however, you are left in the dark about that for the full 300-odd pages. Prebble is a good mystery writer, knowing when to draw you in, throw you a red herring, or lay the foundations of suspicion. And Roger, the mentally handicapped older brother, is the perfect centre of a mystery. After all, how can you trust a memory that does not trust itself?

Jonathan is a good lead – he is sympathetic, yet his vicious jealous streak makes him feel human and flawed. But I have to admit that I never warmed to Harriet. Despite Jonathan’s constant reassurances of her beauty, her impeccable nature, I never felt that she was entirely genuine (not in a flat character way, but in a deceitful way). It works well for the story, as you never invest in her as much as you do Roger and Jonathan.

There are two mysteries here; one of the death of their parents, and one of the final murder (well… sort of… but I won’t reveal that part). They weave neatly together, never actually crossing paths but for the briefest of moments, giving you a feel that the book is distinctly broken in to two parts. It’s clever, and nothing is ever laboured. It also makes it easy to draw your own conclusions (inevitably wrong), but be whisked along nonetheless.

I’ve said before that mysteries are hard to review without giving anything away, but I think it’s fair for me to say that the insect farm plays a huge role in the book, and its inherent creepiness makes this a darker novel than it perhaps seems at first glance.

This is not a novel for the detective/thriller fan. Rather, I would push it more to the literary fiction end of the scale, highlighting its depth of characters, scope and complexity. Each scene is sharp and clear, and beautifully described, although I will wave a red flag here and say that I often struggle with first person narratives because they can sometimes feel a bit contrived (the scene at the party, for example). If there is a criticism, this is perhaps it; Jonathan is a brilliant narrator, but his story feels one-dimensional and carefully rehearsed. There are gaps in our knowledge which he cannot fill for us, and this can be frustrating at points.

As a foil to Jonathan, Brendan Harcourt’s character is a good one, but a little sketchy. This is forgiven, seeing as we are seeing him through Jonathan’s biased eye, but throughout the murder investigation, I was desperate to see more of him on the page. He is a crucial element, and yet is largely forgotten in Jonathan’s own biography.

And as for Roger; it’s hard not to love him. The simplicity with which he sees the world adds a refreshing twist to the story, begging you to question things which you would not have normally queried. But there is a dark element to him that makes you nervous, in one case even pronouncing “I am a benevolent god”, which rings the bells of doom in my mind instantly. This darkness is always shimmering underneath the edges, and even Jonathan can feel it, despite never voicing it. Roger is the star of the show, in the end, dictating and driving Jonathan’s choices far more than he realises. It is Roger that is the centrifugal force around which the book is carried.

In some ways, Roger is a clearer character than Jonathan, as his younger brother invests more time in him, and this strange relationship is the core of the murder. It feels unbreakable, and that is essential in a book that relies on this brotherly bond for its motive.

Overall, I enjoyed this mystery far more than The Life I Left Behind, but can’t help wishing it had been an omniscient narrator – just to really get my teeth in to it. I also loved the ending – that open ending that leaves you without a doubt what happens, but without forcing the point. It’s a rare find to get a good ending in a book!

I was pleased that I had been given The Insect Farm for this month’s book club, and it is refreshing to have to read something you wouldn’t choose yourself. It’s like the moment I uncovered The Handmaid’s Tale at college and started a lifelong love of Margaret Atwood – sometimes those books thrust in to your hands are the best. And The Insect Farm is a tale that promises a whole new world of reading for me.


Copy courtesy of Curtis Brown Book Group

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