Fiction – Kindle edition; Bloomsbury; 336 pages; 2019.
I had no intention of reading Joanne Ramos’s debut novel The Farm, but then I joined a book group here in Fremantle, my new adopted city, and this was their June selection. We had a mighty fine discussion about it on Saturday.
Admittedly, with so much else going on in my life — flat hunting, job hunting, buying furniture, opening a bank account, sorting out an Australian mobile number and so on — my mind has felt too overloaded to read lately. I simply haven’t had the focus and within about 50 pages of this book I considered abandoning it. But, of course, that would mean not being able to go to the book group and, because I was keen to meet some bookish locals, I persevered. The effort was worth it.
The Farm is a dystopian story that’s set just a little in the future. It’s about a powerful American company that has outsourced pregnancy by offering women too busy, too infertile or too old to have children the chance to buy a baby via a surrogate. The surrogates, known as Hosts, are hand-picked and then housed in a secure facility — Golden Oaks, aka “the farm” — where they receive the very best medical attention, albeit with strict limits on their personal freedom and little to no contact with the outside world.
Upon safe delivery of a baby to their Client (who is usually anonymous), the Host receives a substantial sum of money. Consequently, most of the Hosts come from poor ethnic minority backgrounds and the majority are immigrants, mainly from the Philippines.
A female-centric story
The entire story is seen through the eyes of women (indeed, men are barely mentioned in this book) and each of the four main characters takes it in turn, in alternate chapters, to tell their version of events. These are:
- Jane, the young Filipino woman seeking a better life by becoming a Host;
- Ate, a 67-year-old Filipino woman working as a nanny to support her family, including a disabled son back home, who is secretly choosing women and putting them forward as potential Hosts;
- Mae, the daughter of Chinese immigrants, who is the powerful and driven executive from the company that runs Golden Oaks; and
- Reagan, an intelligent white American graduate, who’s decided to become a Host to make enough money to be independent from her father.
Through these wildly different characters Ramos is able to explore different perspectives on surrogacy (though we don’t hear the Client’s perspective except through the lens of the company representing them), babies and motherhood.
In this dystopian world she gives us a glimpse of what life would be like if babies became commodities and poor women were reduced to renting out their wombs for profit. She shows how economic disparity between the haves and the have-nots not only puts pressure on poor women to do things they would otherwise not need to do but gives rich women the false illusion that money can buy them happiness. And she shines an important spotlight on the immigrant underclass who are often trapped by circumstances beyond their control.
Slow start but becomes a page turner
Style-wise the prose is relatively “flat” but the story moves along at a clip — once you get past the first 60 or so pages — and becomes something of a page turner.
It’s suspenseful and thought-provoking, but it’s also got a vein of dark humour running throughout it. Sadly, I thought the ending a bit weak, particularly as you don’t necessarily find out what happens to all the characters.
But as a novel of ideas — and of talking points for book groups! — this is a superb piece of general fiction with lots to say about race, class and inequality.