THE NIGHT GUEST by Fiona McFarlane
Fiona McFarlane’s debut novel The Night Guest is a well-crafted story that focuses on Ruth, an elderly widow living alone in a beach house on the sand dunes of a NSW coastal town.
Ruth awakens one night to hear a tiger huffing and panting in her lounge room. While she knows it’s not real, the arrival of the tiger unleashes in Ruth a flood of memories from her youth spent in Fiji that begin to overlap, encroaching on her nights in hot, steamy, cloying clarity. In the midst of this fraying tapestry appears Frida, a carer claiming to be “sent by the government” to cook and clean for Ruth. Frida is larger than life with hairstyles that change on a daily basis, and a robust enthusiasm for cleaning, and she soon insinuates her way into Ruth’s life, house and heart.
Ruth’s eldest son Jeffrey is conflicted: he’s suspicious of this new arrival but also glad that someone is there to look after his mother. Frida charms Jeffery into complacency, yet he remains uneasy. Nothing dramatic happens but as the story gently unfolds over days spent together in the beach house, Ruth begins to detect an underlying foreboding that she can’t quite define. She is aware that her childhood memories are colliding with the present but struggles to untangle the threads. Ruth reaches out to Richard, an unrequited love from her teenage years in Fiji, and after 50 years apart they reunite to discover their love is for one another is still alive. They begin to plan a life together, however, Frida and Ruth’s deteriorating memory conspire against the couple’s newly-found love.
McFarlane has approached this story of love, ageing loneliness, and deceit in impeccable style. The writing is subtle and sensitive, the pace slow and meandering in some parts, chaotic and in others, until the underlying tension accelerates to reach a sinister crescendo.
The Night Guest by Fiona McFarlane. Published by Penguin Books Australia.