Those 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, 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?
The night guest
Melbourne: Penguin Books, 2014 (orig. ed 2013)