Fiona McFarlane’s debut novel, The Night Guest, is a slippery, elusive tale that will remind readers it’s probably time to call their mothers. It’s a sophisticated look at life and death, family and friends, love and trust. If you like books that make you question the bounds of reality, pick this one up pronto.
About the book: Ruth is an aged widow living on a secluded section of the Australian coast with only her cats for company. Her sons call occasionally, and visit for Christmas, but mostly she spends her days listening only to the sounds of the nearby ocean and her own voice. One night, though, something unusual happens–she wakes in the darkness of her home to the unmistakable feeling that there is a tiger in the house. She knows there can’t really be a tiger, but she sensed it there. The next day, Frida arrives. Frida claims that she is a government worker tasked with caring for elderly folk who don’t qualify for full nursing services but need help keeping their houses clean and functional. At first it’s just an hour each day, then three, but soon Frida has moved into the guest room to help Ruth around the clock for “a small fee.” When Ruth begins to trust her, she tells Frida about the tiger, but Frida’s reaction to the news is perhaps more disturbing than the possibility of a jungle cat prowling occasionally in the lounge room. Ruth begins to question her safety and her sanity in a home that suddenly feels much fuller than it has since her husband’s death. Something about Frida’s presence is menacing, but how can she pay attention to a government carer when the tiger and the complications of old age are creeping up on her?
“Ruth’s door was ajar, and she could see light falling across the hall in a way that meant the lounge-room door was open. The tiger was there, in that light! What would it mean to actually see him? Would it hurt? The jungle pressed against the windows, not insistent; only present.”
Although the narration is presented through a third person perspective, the reader is given a close look at Ruth’s life and thoughts. The early instances of confusion for Ruth in the novel are also moments of confusion for the reader. Ruth remembers one thing, but Frida says something different. Who can be trusted? Even Ruth begins to doubt herself. McFarlane is an expert puppeteer of characters and their truths, leaving the reader to wonder where the fiction ends and Ruth’s reality begins.
“All her life she’d been afraid of believing something untrue. It seemed like a constant threat: the possibility, for example, of believing in error that Christ had died for her sins. She turned with horror from the unlikely thing. It seemed so improbable that Frida would lie…that the house could really be so hot and full of jungle noises, even once a tiger. Who would believe any of it? But it was true.”
The fact that both Ruth’s and Frida’s trustworthiness is in question fills each sentence of the book with curiosities. The most mundane details of Ruth’s past and Frida’s everyday actions must be considered carefully to check against future mentions, when they may be provided again in unexpected variations or completely refuted by new information. And then there’s the tiger. Ruth admits readily that there must not truly be a tiger, but Frida latches on to the idea, taking it very literally. There’s not quite anything about Frida that Ruth or the reader can put their fingers on, but neither can shake the feeling that Frida is after something she won’t admit to. Frida is a nagging mystery hiding in the shadow of the persistent tiger mystery–and perhaps she’s hiding there behind the tiger intentionally.
“Frida only ever did what she wanted. Ruth knew that, just as she knew that Frida was not honest and had fooled her in some important way. The clocks ticked louder.”
Side note: I kept having to pause my reading to admire the cover of this book. The colors and design are gorgeous, the artwork intricate and intriguing. This is probably one of the best sale buys I’ve ever found. I was a little worried that the content couldn’t possibly impress me as much as the cover, but the writing style flows eloquently and precisely, pulling the reader into the book effortlessly. I wish I could say more about the wonders of the symbolism and plotting in this book without giving too much away, but I’ll have to settle for sharing the cover instead. Here’s the back: (note the tiger camouflaged into the bottom left corner)
My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. This book was short and easy to read, but absolutely lovely. It’s a captivating story, a real warning, and a humbling lesson. It’ll stay with me a long time. I don’t know that I’ve read any other books by Australian authors, but I enjoyed this one so much I may have to look into that. I haven’t read many books with elderly characters either, but I found Ruth endearing, and when she wasn’t having memory trouble, I had to remind myself occasionally that she was a retired grandmother who’d already lost her husband to old age several years past. I think I’ll have to look into Fredrik Backman’s books after enjoying this one so much. Any recommendations for me among those, or otherwise based on this book? The Night Guest is the kind of book that makes me want to go out and find lots of other great books to read, so feel free to mention any that come to mind!
- Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants is narrated alternately by an amusingly crabby old man in a nursing home and his much younger self during the months he spent running away with the circus. There’s romance, manipulation, contemplation of death, and so much circus excitement in this intriguing story. If you like The Night Guest, you should pick this one up, too.
- If you’re looking for something even more thrilling that features a character who begins to doubt her own sanity after an unsettling sequence of events, try Ruth Ware’s new novel, The Woman in Cabin 10. A young woman witnesses a murder on a small boat, but every other passenger denies that the woman ever existed. Click here for my complete review of this book.
Coming up Next: I’ll soon be posting my monthly wrap-up for September, with a brief overview of the books I’ve read through the month, the new books I’ve acquired recently, and my to-read list for October. Following that, my next review post will feature Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game, which I’m hoping will relate to a couple of the books I read and enjoyed in September–Ready Player One by Ernest Cline, and Red Rising by Pierce Brown. Check back soon to see how they compare!
The Literary Elephant