Fiona McFarlane's The Night Guest is an extraordinarily accomplished novel, one that is hard to categorise but easy to enjoy. I've seen it described as a "psychological thriller" but I think that does the book a disservice. While it is suspenseful and brims with tension — making it a sure-fire page-turner — it's also full of poignant moments and laugh-out-loud black humour. I hungrily ate it up in the space of a weekend and absolutely loved it.
Ruth, an Australian woman in her 70s, is readjusting to life alone as a widow following the death of her husband. She lives in a secluded house by the beach and has lately come to believe there is a tiger living in her house: she has never seen it but hears it "panting and snorting" in the hallway outside her bedroom of a night.
When she rings her son, who lives in New Zealand, to tell him about it, he placates her by saying it is "either a cat, or a dream".
His voice conveyed a serene weariness; Ruth suspected he was reassuring his wife with an eyes-closed shake of the head that everything was all right, that his mother was just having one of her moments. When he'd visited a few weeks ago, at Easter, Ruth has noticed a new watchful patience in him, and a tendency to purse his lips whenever she said something he considered unusual. So she knew, from the funny mirror of Jeffrey's face, that she had reached the stage where her sons would be worried about her.
As if to allay her fears, one morning a woman dressed in white arrives on her doorstep. Her name is Frida and she is a carer "sent by the government". But for all her good intentions, Frida is not quite what she seems.
A symbiotic relationship
It's hard to write the rest of this review without giving away crucial plot spoilers, but it's fair to say the central focus of this novel is the relationship between these two very different women, which develops and changes over time. Occasionally, it feels a bit like a marriage — they even have their little squabbles but quickly move on as if nothing has happened — but as it progresses, you begin to question the health of their partnership.
I found my allegiance swinging widely between the two: one minute thinking Ruth was just being kooky and forgetful, the other wondering if Frida's intentions might be nefarious. This, I think, is testament to McFarlane's skillful handling of her characters — never making Ruth a batty old woman, not turning Frida into an obvious villain — so that they always remain very human and believable.
Indeed, this is a very human and believable story. It covers many important themes — how we care for the elderly, how their vulnerabilities can be exploited and the ways in which our memories can play tricks or deteriorate through dementia or trauma — and yet it's also a book full of surreal moments. While it never strays into magic realism territory, the roaming, unseen tiger serves to make the reader a little unsure of Ruth's sanity.
Aside from the tiger, what makes The Night Guest a wonderfully suspenseful read is the way that McFarlane holds back information and then reveals little nuggets that make the reader reassess all that has gone before. It's a novel full of what I call "oh-oh" moments — little bombshells that make you fearful on Ruth's behalf — but it never feels as if you are being manipulated or taken for a ride.
It has a lovely back story, too, of Ruth's childhood growing up in Fiji, the only child of Australian missionaries. Her unrequited love for Richard, a young doctor who worked with her parents, still haunts her and when she manages to track him down and invite him to visit, their fledgling romance is sweetly told.
My only quibble is the final chapter which ties up many of the loose endings so that the reader is no longer left wondering about the way events played out. I would have preferred to have figured it out myself, and I rather suspect it was probably added in to keep a publisher happy because it feels rather different in style and viewpoint to the rest of the novel.
All in all, The Night Guest is an enthralling read, one that is both deeply disturbing and yet full of comic moments and tender insight. It is wise and funny and heartfelt. And it reminded me very much of that great dame of Australian letters Elizabeth Jolley, because it so expertly weaves the slightly surreal with the very human.
I was very fortunate to be asked to chair the UK launch of the book at Sceptre's offices last week. I had been told the event would be "very informal and relaxed", so imagine my surprise (or should I say shock?) when I turned up to find the event was ticketed and that there were more than 60 people in attendance! Thank goodness for the giant glass of "Dutch courage" I was given by Fiona's publicist beforehand and the fact that Fiona herself was so delightful and charming.
You can read a write up about the launch on the website of the Australia & New Zealand Festival of Literature & Arts, which sponsored the event together with the Australian Women's Club.