The Farm by Joanne Ramos

Bloomsbury

Dystopian thrillers that are a little too close to home are all the rage these days, thanks to the first season of the TV adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale coinciding with the election of one orange hewed leader of the free world and its third airing when the reproductive rights of women in the US are under a very real and dangerous threat. Where Offred and her fertile co-handmaids are being forcefully used to become ovens for their host family’s buns, in America of 2019 pregnant women are being shot by other parties and then charged with the manslaughter of their own foetuses. Sometimes reality is stranger than fiction, or at least frighteningly parallel to it.

The Farm riffs on the theme; healthy young women are being lured to a facility outside of New York to carry the children of wealthy women and couples who either are unable to do so themselves or are unwilling to for a variety of reasons. The surrogates are on a tiered system, with white, educated women at the top and lower on the rung are Filipina immigrants, desired for their perceived docility and obedience. Jane is one such surrogate, who has been encouraged by her aunt and mentor Ate, a shrewd business woman in her own right, to take up the high-paying role to provide for her infant daughter, following an unfortunate incident at her previous job as a nanny for an upscale Manhattanite couple.  

Jane’s roommate is Reagan, a recent college graduate and would-be photographer who doesn’t want her father to dictate the next stage of her life by paying for graduate school. She’s one of the top-tier Hosts, as they’re called, and while not feeling exploited herself she, as an educated white American, feels a white saviour unease about the circumstances surrounding the presence of the hosts of lower socio-economic groups. Her friend and fellow white American, Lisa is on her third pregnancy for the same family so knows the ropes; it’s Lisa who refers to the ‘gestational facility’ as the farm, and is in it solely to get in and out in the required time frame and to pocket a significant pay-check at the end of it.

COO of the facility is Mae Yu, who is an expert in faux empathy and a master of management. She runs the place with both an iron fist and a lightness of touch, ensuring that the Hosts feel like they’re being pampered when in fact the daily check ins, meal plans, and recreation are all designed with the babies in mind, the benefits to the surrogates purely a secondary perk. Her approach is all business, and while she recognises that the women are actual people just like her mega-rich clients, her concerns for their welfare are more in line with not breaking any laws than ensuring their comfort, safety and well-being. She has no qualms in crossing moral and ethical boundaries now and again in order to do what’s right, for the baby and its prospective parents.

What’s jarring about the concept is that at list it seems legitimate, even reasonable. These are consenting adults being paid very good money to live in luxury for the full gestation of the baby, some with the prospect to go through the process multiple times with the same family, to extend their contracts to provide a wet-nurse service, even to become the nanny to the baby or babies they carried. But soon the corporate machinations come to light, the capitalistic monster rears its head and it’s clear that the ‘gestational facility’ concept is truly flawed. There’s too much room for exploitation, for damaging emotional manipulation and for greed to surpass the fundamentals of humanity.

Where cracks begin to show within the confines of the facility, and cruel punishments are dished out for relatively minor indiscretions, the story picks up and hurtles towards a finale that should be explosive but is paired back at the last minute. While the concept is thought-provoking and the characters’ motivations compelling, there isn’t enough juice in the narrative overall to really deliver as it could have. It cops out, and a bit more bravery in the storytelling could have elevated it beyond The Handmaid’s Tale lite. Still, an insight into the haves and have nots of America is a worthy subject, and for that alone The Farm is worth a read.

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