Our second Book of the Month for February is The Insect Farm by Stuart Prebble (check out James Hannah’s blog if you missed the first). It’s an intense novel of psychological suspense that questions family loyalties, the reliability of memory, and asks “how well do you really know yourself and what you’re capable of?”
“Though I did not necessarily appreciate it at the time, I have realized as an adult that my parents did a pretty good job of imparting to me some important nuggets of wisdom to help as I made my way through life. One of them, to take a random example, was never to eat in a restaurant that has pictures on the menu. See what I mean? Good solid advice which I have always tried to stick to, and has always stood me in good stead.
Another virtue my parents tried to teach me was not to envy other people. I’ve done a bit less well with that one, and one group I have sometimes found myself envying are those who experience lots of very vivid dreams. I don’t mean dreams of the Martin Luther King “we want a better world” type – heaven knows I have plenty of those, even though I long ago despaired of any of them being realized. I mean the kind of dreams which take you in your slumber to otherwise unimaginable places and circumstances, and from which you wake up puzzled and exhausted. I don’t have many of these dreams, and I sometimes wish that I did.
This may be surprising, especially in view of the fact that the only dream I can remember having had more than once; indeed, a dream I have had variations of quite a few times, is that at some time in the past I have murdered someone. I am a murderer and am trying to get away with it.
I know; weird shit.
Worse still, I quite often wake up in the early hours and spend some minutes still under the impression that at sometime in the past I have killed someone, and feeling anxious that I am about the be caught. In these dreams, the incident in question has happened a long time ago, so that I can scarcely remember the details. And this aspect of it – the tricks played by memory – is the other element which got me thinking in the first place about the plot for my new novel, The Insect Farm.
Five years ago I started work on a non-fiction book I had long-planned to write about an incident which occurred during the Falklands War. It was all to do with the circumstances in which the British nuclear submarine Conqueror had sunk the Argentine cruiser General Belgrano, with the loss of 328 lives. I was a working producer of ITV’s current affairs programme World in Action at the time, and had become involved in covering the controversy.
At that time I learned a real-life proper military secret about the activities of the submarine during the Cold War, and stored away a lot of documents with the intention of waiting 30 years until the secret could perhaps be told. My research for the book – Secrets of the Conqueror – involved digging deep into the archives, talking to a lot of people who were involved at the time, but also delving far into my own memory of events which had taken place nearly three decades earlier.
I found it an amazing experience. First of all, I discovered that there was a whole series of meetings and events at which I had been present, but which either I did not remember at all, or of which my memory was completely at odds with that of others also present. One example involved an incident which had taken place at the wedding of an officer from the submarine. When I asked him about it he replied, “You should know – you were there.” I would have sworn on a stack of bibles that I had not been at his wedding, until he sent me a photograph from the day, and there I am, sitting at the top table, complete with dreadful mullet haircut. Scary… (and even now, I’m still in denial about the mullet).
I also found that when people gave me their accounts of events about which I did have a decent memory, quite often they had a tendency to put themselves at the centre of business; attributing to themselves words or actions which I felt sure had actually been said or done by other people. I sat at dinner and listened to my older brother telling an anecdote about a very funny thing he had said at a party, which I recalled as being entirely accurate, except that I was pretty sure that the funny thing had been said by me!
So when I started to evolve the plot for The Insect Farm, I decided to try to put these two things together. What if you had been involved in a murder, which became part of your memory bank for many years? After three or four decades, perhaps you would be unable to remember accurately who had said what, and who had done what. Had the murder taken place at all, or did you dream it? And if it had, whodunit? And so I invented Jonathan Maguire and his older brother Roger, who are drawn into involvement in a terrible murder. Destiny requires that they live all their lives together, but each of them has their own completely different understanding of what has happened, and each of them is trying to evade justice on behalf of the other. And all that’s before we come to the part played by the Insect Farm itself! Now read on (please).”
The Insect Farm will be published in the UK by Alma Books on Thursday 26th March and in the US by Mulholland Books in Tuesday 7th July. You can follow Stuart on Twitter at @StuartPrebble and find out more about The Insect Farm and Stuart’s previous books at www.stuartprebble.com.