Wednesday, 15 January 2014

The Night Guest by Fiona McFarlane

Ruth is widowed, her sons are grown, and she lives in an isolated beach house outside of town. Her routines are few and small. One day a stranger arrives at her door, looking as if she has been blown in from the sea. This woman—Frida—claims to be a care worker sent by the government. Ruth lets her in.
     Now that Frida is in her house, is Ruth right to fear the tiger she hears on the prowl at night, far from its jungle habitat? Why do memories of childhood in Fiji press upon her with increasing urgency? How far can she trust this mysterious woman, Frida, who seems to carry with her her own troubled past? And how far can Ruth trust herself?
     The Night Guest, Fiona McFarlane’s hypnotic first novel, is no simple tale of a crime committed and a mystery solved. This is a tale that soars above its own suspense to tell us, with exceptional grace and beauty, about ageing, love, trust, dependence, and fear; about processes of colonization; and about things (and people) in places they shouldn’t be. Here is a new writer who comes to us fully formed, working wonders with language, renewing our faith in the power of fiction to describe the mysterious workings of our minds.

Goodreads Description

Psychological suspense, with its emphasis on disorientating the reader and challenging reality, is a sub-genre highly suited to magic realism. This debut novel by Australian author Fiona McFarlane is an excellent example of this.

The book starts normally enough with the retired elocution teacher Ruth pottering around in her seaside home. Even the arrival of the careworker, Frida, seems normal.  Into her life comes an old crush from her youth and everything looks set for a gentle love story, but then suddenly you feel the book jolt into more alarming territory, when Ruth discovers Frida is living in her home:

“You assumed I was leaving, obviously. Who knows why.”

“And why I wouldn’t I assume you were leaving? It’s not as if you live here.”

“Oh, dear.” Frida lifted her feet from the towel ... remember, we talked about George, all my trouble with George? And you said I could stay as long as I needed to. So here I am.” ...

“That isn’t true, Frida, what you’re saying to me now, it’s not true. I’d remember.” Ruth was certain; but there was a feeling of unraveling, all the same; an unwound thread. She did recognize the part about trouble with George.

“You know your memory’s not what it used to be.”

“I do not know that.” 

You find yourself looking back at what has gone before - Frida's arrival, the tiger in the house and Ruth's reaction to it and you realize that a) you have been seeing the world through Ruth's eyes, b) that she and you have missed clues and c) something very strange is happening and you cannot make out what it is.  From then on the story plays with your lack of certainty. Is Ruth hallucinating? Is it a very accurate picture of dementia? The mother of a friend of mine was convinced that she had a second doctor lived in her attic. Or is Frida plying her with hallucinatory drugs and playing with her mind?  The relationship between Frida and Ruth is fascinating and by no means a simple black and white affair, as there seems to be some real connection between the two. At the end of the book another character remembers how Ruth and Frida had run together like lovers.

 A key element in this uncertainty is the magic realist tiger.  Does it exist? Is it a sign of Ruth's  mind deteriorating? Is Frida play-acting? The tiger was Frida's now... She was proud of him and of her arm; the heroics of the night before seemed to give her precedence in all household matters. Nothing is clear, everything is uncertain. Maybe the tiger is even real. 

This is a story which will have you checking up on your elderly relatives and wondering what your life might be like when you become old and vulnerable. It is truly unnerving and brilliantly so - beautifully written and constructed. Fiona McFarlane is an author to watch.

I received this book from the publisher via Netgalley in return for a fair review.

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