The Night Guest - Fiona McFarlane


I've got a soft spot for reading Australian debut novels (I'm not really sure why) and The Night Guest by Fiona McFarlane has been on my to-read list for a while. I finished it a few days ago with the kind of frantic late-night-turning-of-the-pages-can't-wait-to-see-how-it-ends approach that means (to me) a terrific book.

It's McFarlane's first book, and she tells the story of Ruth, a 75 year old widow who lives by herself in an isolated house by the sea in NSW. One evening she thinks she hears a tiger prowling around in her living room. She knows it's not real, but rather her imagination - but also senses it heralds a change in her life.

The next day another woman, Frida, arrives unannounced on her doorstep, "sent by the Government" to help her with cleaning, cooking and taking her medications.

So the story starts. McFarlane weaves together Ruth's memories of her childhood, marriage, first loves and experiences as a mother into something beautiful and achingly sad. 

Inconsistencies and holes start to appear in Ruth's memory. She starts to distrust herself - not just her memory and mind, but her ability to drive, go to town, shop and cook for herself.

All the while her imaginary tiger and Frida, circle. Both seem to wait, watch and learn about the deepening nature of Ruth's vulnerability. The sense of foreboding grows even as Frida seems to grow taller and stronger in the story, and Ruth's mind becomes increasingly unreliable. 

I thought it was such a beautifully written book. McFarlane explores the relationship between Ruth and Frida, while maintaining the sense of foreboding and suspense. Is Ruth overly paranoid? What is Frida's intent and who is she really?

It's no surprise The Night Guest was short-listed for the 2014 Stella Prize.* Ruth and Frida are two intriguing and complex female characters and I found myself thinking for days about some of the themes explored in the book.

Things like how age, isolation, loss of memory and fragility of mind can bring real vulnerability. About how at a certain age, women (and men perhaps too) seem to become 'invisible'. As if somehow, in today's society that fanatically celebrates youth and beauty, we've forgotten how to treasure the lives and experience of our older generations. We've forgotten how to really see, and appreciate them.

The Night Guest is devastating on several fronts. One was how distant Ruth's children had become. While mildly worried about who Frida was, or why Ruth was hearing tigers in her living room at night, they seemed too busy to really care much about their Mum, beyond a few phone calls and unfulfilled promises to visit. 

They had, in a way, stopped really seeing and caring for Ruth, and on some level she knows it.

No spoilers about the ending of the book here - but I highly recommend it.  If you are looking for a new Australian author to read, or the next book in your Year of Australian Writing challenge - this could be it!

Let me know what you think. Have you read The Night Guest? What do you think the tiger represents? Ever felt invisible after a certain age? I hope not, and if you have, you most certainly are not

*The 2015 Stella Prize long-list was announced today. Congratulations to the 12 authors! Helen Garner's This House of Grief is long-listed, and it's next on my YOAW challenge list - I'm about 40 pages in. Will let you know how it goes. 









4 comments:

  1. I love the sound of this book Pia and have just added it to my ever increasing list of books to read. The vulnerability of old people is something which touches my heart so thank you for recommending it. (An added bonus / incentive to read it is the blurb on the cover by Kate Atkinson who is one of my favourite authors!)

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  2. Me too Ing, vulnerability and age, or just somehow being less visible with age is something I thought lots about after reading this book. Hope you like it!

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  3. Wow this sounds like a fascinating book, I am loving your review (and others that I'm seeing as part of the challenge) my to read list is getting long!

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  4. Thanks Lila! I know, the reading challenge is awesome but my to-read pile is getting massive!

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