March 5, 2014
Vol: 21 No: 10

Arts & Entertainment

The lie of the tiger

By Joe Martin / Guest Writer

Book Review - The Night Guest / By Fiona McFarlane

In this debut novel, a lonely septuagenarian wonders which is more deadly: a savage feline or an unexpected visitor

Photo by Jon Williams / Arts Editor

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A modest house sits on a sandy, windswept bluff on the coast of Australia with a fine eastern prospect of sea and shore. It’s a remote area south of Sydney. This is the home of Ruth Field, a woman in her mid-70s. She and her husband, Harry, had retired, and it seemed a pleasant spot to lead a quiet life in their latter years. Harry died one morning while on his daily walk to a nearby town to purchase the newspaper. Now Ruth’s two cats are her only company. She has two adult sons who live afar and have their own lives, Jeffery in New Zealand and Phillip in Hong Kong. They phone their mother and visit from time to time. But Ruth’s life is essentially a solitary one. Alone and fragile, she experiences curious thoughts as well as a palpable sensation at night of her home being invaded by a prowling tiger. 

Without warning Ruth’s bubble of solitude, in Fiona McFarlane’s debut novel “The Night Guest,” is punctured: “This morning, an oil tanker waited on the rim of the world, as if long-sufferingly lost, and farther around the bay, near the town, Ruth could make out surfers. They rode waves that from here looked bath-sized, just toy swells. And in every way this was ordinary, except that a large woman was approaching, looking as if she had been blown in from the sea.”

The woman’s name is Frida Young. She made her way to Ruth’s home by taxi. This unexpected visitor causes Ruth mild confusion and anxiety. She wonders if she should know Frida. Has she simply forgotten who this strange woman is? Maybe they knew each other long ago? Did her sons ask this woman to check on her? Has some agreed-upon arrangement slipped Ruth’s mind?

Frida is full of garrulous good cheer: “Couldn’t you use a hand round the place? If someone rocked up to my front door — my back door — and offered to look after me, I’d kiss their feet.” She explains that she has been sent by the “government.” Frida tells Ruth that she had been on a waiting list for a “carer.” Her name finally rose to the top of the list. Frida assures the older woman that her services will come at no cost. 

Ruth does her best to be cordial but is taken aback by this sudden intrusion. She phones her son Jeffery. He speaks to Frida, who explains her role and assignment to the son’s satisfaction. She will start helping out with household chores for an hour a day. Frida tells Jeffery that she will then evaluate the situation. More time can be allotted if necessary to get the chores done properly. “Ruth disliked hearing herself discussed in the third person. She felt like an eavesdropper.” Although Jeffrey OKs the arrangement, his mother remains uncertain and unsettled.

In no time the overbearing Frida is encroaching on Ruth’s territory. On her second day, Frida asks Ruth for a “grand tour” of the house: “Frida seemed to lead the tour. She marched into rooms and cupboards and corridors, announcing ‘The bathroom!’ and ‘The linen press!’ as if Ruth were a prospective buyer inspecting the property.” Ruth maintains her composure, but Frida’s forwardness seems to overwhelm her. Has this chore worker really been sent by a government agency? Does something subtle and nefarious lurk in the shadows? After her whirlwind inspection Frida assures Ruth: “Don’t you worry, things will be different from now on.” 

This enticing tale is the first novel for 35-year old Australian author McFarlane. She has already proven herself an accomplished writer of short stories. Of her novel she says, “I was interested in writing about an older woman and in what happens or can happen to the mind as we age, and that’s partly because my grandmothers suffered from dementia, and I wanted to write respectfully and unsentimentally about this.”

As for the nightly visits by the stealthy beast felt so vividly by Ruth — whose formative years were spent on Fiji with her missionary parents — McFarlane states: “A friend of mine was talking about how tigers keep appearing in Victorian literature and they kept appearing in children’s literature from then on. The idea that this figure that is both exotic and terrifying can creep from the outer regions of the British Empire into the Victorian nursery, and unsettle things there … at one level it’s a safe threat, and at another it’s something quite frightening.”

“The Night Guest” is a superb study of the loneliness and vulnerability of an older woman who is slowly losing her mental acuity. It is also a taut and absorbing thriller guaranteed to have the reader turning the pages to discover what happens next in the strange relationship between Ruth and her curious helper.

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