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Fiona McFarlane, The night guest (Review)

February 25, 2015

McFarlaneNightGuestPenguinThose of you who followed the literary award season in Australia last year will have seen Fiona McFarlane’s debut novel The night guest pop up several times. The more it popped up, the more I wanted to read it – but also the more I thought it would be good to read with my reading group. So, I bought it, and held onto it until this year, as we did, in fact, schedule it for our end of February meeting.

The first thing to say about this book is that it’s an easy, quick read, a page-turner in fact. But, it is not a simple read. It’s a read that keeps you guessing right to the end, even though you are pretty sure you know what is going on. It’s about Ruth. She’s in her mid-seventies, and recently widowed. She lives in the family’s old holiday house to which she and her husband had retired a few years previously. And, she’s “reached the stage where her sons worried about her”.

Then, along comes Frida, from the government she says, to be Ruth’s carer, because Ruth, as we’d suspected, has dementia, albeit in early stages. She is, she feels, “still self-governing”. Apparently, both of McFarlane’s grandmothers had dementia which helps explain why McFarlane has been able to present Ruth’s state of mind so convincingly. I say “helps explain” because there’s clearly a perceptive and skilled writer at work here too. It’s one thing to experience family members with dementia, but it’s quite another to be able to present it with such authority and authenticity.

How does McFarlane do this? The most important decision a writer has to make I think – and I’ve certainly heard many say this – is the voice. For this book, McFarlane chose third person subjective, that is, it is told third person but almost completely from Ruth’s perspective. A good decision, because we can feel Ruth’s uncertainty as she slides between confidence and uncertainty, between independence and neediness, between reality and a strange world that doesn’t always make sense. Because it’s from her point of view – and not an omniscient author’s – we are kept on our toes, not always sure, as Ruth is not, of where she is on any of those spectrums at any given time. Sometimes it’s patently obvious, but other times it’s not so clear.

Ruth has a few guests during the course of the book – including Frida (of course) and a man called Richard Porter. But there is another one, a tiger! The tiger appears in the opening sentence of the novel:

Ruth woke at four in the morning and her blurry brain said, ‘Tiger’.

She was of course dreaming, except that now she’s awake, she starts to hear noises, “something large … rubbing” against her furniture, and “the panting of a large animal”. These noises are too big to be coming from her cats. The tiger is ongoing “character” in the novel. More on this anon.

The second guest to arrive is the aforementioned Frida. She appears out of the blue one day – “You don’t know me from Adam” she says – to start caring for Frida. The question though is, is she “out of the blue” or is it that Ruth didn’t remember that someone was coming. Questions like this recur throughout the novel, keeping us in a sort of readerly vertigo. One minute we believe we know, and the next we are uncertain again. By the half-way point, though, I suspect most readers are pretty confident of what’s really going on, but even then there are uncertainties about how it will actually play out. All this makes the book an engrossing challenge.

Then there’s the third guest, Richard Porter, who was her first, and unrequited love, when she was a young woman living in Fiji with her missionary parents. Ruth invites him for a visit, hoping that “things could still happen to her”.

It’s hard to know how to write more about the book though because this is one of those stories in which the plot and the meaning are intertwined. However, I can say that it’s broadly about ageing, grief, love and loss. It’s also about trust, honesty and the responsibilities we have for each other.

The tiger

The tiger, as I’ve already indicated, appears on the first page. He’s a complex figure, alluding partly, I’m sure, to Blake’s “The Tyger”. But, and here perhaps I’m drawing a longer bow, he also reminded me of the tiger (aka Richard Parker, which is very close to Richard Porter, but that might be a bridge too far!) in Yann Martel’s Life of Pi. Both tigers reflect a duality: they are both fearsome (and perhaps representative of evil, though I like to avoid that word), but both can also be seen positively. Blake’s tiger was made by the God who also made the lamb, and so by extension can be seen to encompass both forces. Martel’s tiger needs to be kept at bay, but his very presence also gives Pi the strength and focus he needs to survive.

So, too, in The night guest does the tiger play a complex role. He appears when Ruth is at her most uncertain, most fearful, most disoriented, disappearing when she’s calm. In that sense he represents the negative. But, there’s something grand, and perhaps even reassuring about him. In his first appearance, Ruth thinks:

A tiger! Ruth, thrilled by this possibility, forget to be frightened and had to counsel herself back into fear.

A little later, when she is feeling comfortable, the tiger is “safely herbivorous”. But, he comes back, and Ruth is irritated “because there was no point to him now that she had Frida and Richard; the tiger had prepared the way for them and was no longer needed”. I’m tempted to suggest that Frida and Richard could represent the tiger’s duality, but the book isn’t simplistically conceived, so I don’t want to take that line of thinking too far.

Towards the end, when the tiger is fighting for his existence,

Ruth felt for a moment on the verge of understanding exactly what the tiger was saying when he roared. He wasn’t concerned for his safety, but for his dignity …

I’ll leave the tiger there, but I think you can see how McFarlane uses him in the novel.

There are other images and symbols which run through the book, some of them biblical, like lilies (“she was safe behind her lilies”), which makes sense given Ruth’s missionary upbringing. And, of course, Ruth’s name itself is biblical. None of this is heavy-handed though, or suggests a slavish adherence to symbolism. It just adds to the depth with which we can contemplate this book – at least, I think so.

In the end, this is a book about people – and how we treat each other. Several people, besides those I’ve mentioned here, are involved in Ruth’s life, such as her sons and a young mother who’d found her husband as he was dying. The book asks us to consider how far do we – should we – take our duty of care? How do we decide when we should intervene in another’s life and when we should not. I did enjoy this book.

Lisa at ANZLitLovers didn’t enjoy it as much as I did. I agree that it doesn’t really work as a psychological thriller, which is how some of the blurbs on my edition describe it. But, as I was reading it, I wondered whether that’s what McFarlane intended … or just how it’s been promoted?

awwchallenge2015Fiona McFarlane
The night guest
Melbourne: Penguin Books, 2014 (orig. ed 2013)
275pp.
ISBN: 9780143571339

26 Comments leave one →
  1. February 26, 2015 3:03 am

    An intriguing sounding book. I somehow suspect calling it a psychological thriller was not the author’s idea. Those marketing people can come up with some wacky ideas and calling a book about dementia a thriller seems like one of them!

    • February 26, 2015 8:28 am

      Thanks Stefanie. I think I need to read or listen to some interviews with McFarlane to see if she talks about her intentions. Whatever, since I don’t rush to read thrillers I’m more than happy that this read to me more like a drama.

  2. February 26, 2015 7:19 am

    Great review! I love this book and it was one of my favourite reads last year. I still think about it often, and am keen to reread it. I enjoyed reading your review, especially your interpretations of the tiger. Your point about the book being a psychological thriller is interesting – I didn’t get the impression of it being promoted as such in the UK, but I could be wrong. I thought it was a very delicate exploration of ageing and memory.

  3. Anne Fenn permalink
    February 26, 2015 7:41 am

    A fantastic read! It has a sense of dread threading through it , and there is both anguish for Ruth in her situation, and cheering her on . It was one of the few books you read thinking “this is something new” . Not surprised it was shortjklisted for more than one award last year.

    • February 26, 2015 9:00 am

      Thanks Anne … Yes, I agree there’s dread and that has some tension, doesn’t it, but I never felt I was reading a thriller. Somehow, that would cheapen its value I think because you would focus on what’s GOING to happen rather than on what IS happening, if that makes sense.

  4. February 26, 2015 9:06 am

    That’s an interesting thought re Life of Pi – I never thought of that!!

    • February 26, 2015 10:24 am

      Thanks Lisa – a long bow I’m sure it terms of McFarlane’s intention, but it just wouldn’t go away!

    • February 26, 2015 10:25 am

      It popped into my head too when I was reading it – even if subconscious, there must be SOME link, surely!

      • February 26, 2015 10:36 am

        Oh good, Jane! I’m glad someone else did. I was starting to feel a bit abandoned like Pi! Though, fortunately others have kindly not dismissed the idea. As you say, the link could be subconscious …

  5. February 26, 2015 9:16 am

    Excellent review, WG!

    I agree with Gemma that this is a novel that stays with you. (As you know, I, along with 2 other judges, awarded it joint winner of the Barbara Jefferis prize last year.)

    I think it is reductive to call ‘The Night Guest’ a psychological thriller – and I say this as a fan of thrillers and crime novels. I think the description tends to lead people down the wrong track in thinking and talking about the book. I would also hesitate to use the word ‘dementia’, though I think you have used it both subtly and comprehensively in your review. I particularly like your focus on the tiger – I never thought of the comparison with ‘Life of Pi’, so thanks for that as well.

    • February 26, 2015 10:30 am

      Whew, thanks Dorothy. (And good choice I say!) Yes, I think that nomenclature is reductive too. I decided to ignore the suggestion which was on a blurb facing my title page and read it with an open mind.

      I’m always anxious about using terms like “dementia” or “Asperger’s” in reviews if the author hasn’t used the term her/himself so I understand your point.

      Re Pi, I’m sure it’s a long bow but as I replied to Lisa it just wouldn’t leave my mind!

      • February 26, 2015 12:00 pm

        LOL I wimped it and just referred to it as ‘confused old age’ …
        PS Love the BJ award:), one of my favourites.

  6. Anne Fenn permalink
    February 26, 2015 9:28 am

    Two other great reads which explore ideas raised in “The night guest “.
    Sarah Hopkins “This picture of you” (Australian)
    Emma Healey. ” Elizabeth is missing” ( UK)

  7. February 26, 2015 9:43 am

    Third person subjective when done well is so effective (William Golding’s The Spire is one of my favourite books). This is a book that did follow me home from the sale table of a bookstore one day, so I do hope to get to it at some point. I do need to read more women writers.
    Thanks!

    • February 26, 2015 10:32 am

      LOL you do Rough Ghosts! I haven’t read “The spire”. I shall add it to my virtual TBR! I do like third person subjective (done well).

  8. Meg permalink
    February 26, 2015 10:20 am

    I really enjoyed The Night Guest, and for a debut novel it was excellent. Sue, remember you blogged about The Night Guest winning the The Voss Literary Prize last year, (established to reward the best novel from the previous year). I love your thoughts with regard to the tiger in Life of Pi, but I only thought of Blake’s Tyger. I would suggest it is a suspenseful novel rather than a a psychological thriller.

    • February 26, 2015 10:34 am

      Thanks Meg … yes, I think that’s a better description. There is tension and suspense but “thriller” rather changes the emphasis I think. And, yes, I should have referred to its various prizes in my intro shouldn’t I?

      I’m so glad no-one is thinking I’m totally off my tree with the Life of Pi reference! I was a bit anxious about that …

  9. February 26, 2015 1:18 pm

    I watched my father’s mental deterioration with dementia, so I bought this and have it on my pile. You’ve made me want to move it to the top of the pile—which I will!

    As a very young girl I lived in fear of tigers. I thought they lived in Tasmania and would eat me while I slept. My father had to take me to the top of a nearby hill and show me there were none living up there before I would believe him. They’re beautiful creatures, but I’d never want to be alone with one! In literature, they’ll always make me think of ‘Life of Pi’.

    • February 26, 2015 10:58 pm

      Wow, thanks for all this Louise. That’s fascinating about you and tigers. Maybe it is a common fear? Anyhow, I love that you think of Pi too when you see tigers in literature.

  10. February 26, 2015 6:23 pm

    It’s definitely not a thriller! That’s a case of mismatched marketing. And I’m glad I didn’t hear that before I read it because it was absolutely one of my favourite reads last year. Such a beautifully crafted book. And it’s stuck with me. I can’t wait for whatever Fiona writes next.

    • February 26, 2015 11:08 pm

      Oh thanks Irma … for the first few chapters I kept looking for the thriller but then I decided that it was probably just marketing and that I should relax and read it as it came across to me without any assumptions. Not all the blurbs in my edition say thriller, in fact, but those words popped out at me because I wasn’t really expecting them!

      It is a beautiful read isn’t it? Did the final wrap up chapter bother you? It clearly didn’t bother the Barbara Jefferis judges. I can see see why some readers question it but it worked fine for me.

      (PS I gave my wonderful neighbour Australian love stories for her birthday this week – she’s started it and is loving it.)

      • March 2, 2015 11:59 am

        I must admit I’m not a fan of wrap-up chapters but this worked fine for me (though I can see why it might bother others). It’s a book that I’ve recommended to everyone since reading it. Having watched two grandparents slide into dementia I found the nuanced way Fiona showed Ruth’s disintegration quite brilliant.

        And so pleased your neighbour is enjoying Love Stories!

        • March 2, 2015 3:17 pm

          Thanks for answering, Irma. That’s pretty much how I felt. For some reason this one felt more than a wrap up, that it was adding something. Anyhow, yes, I’m recommending it too.

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