The Night Guest by Fiona McFarlane
The title of Fiona McFarlane’s debut novel is an intriguing one and, when paired with the cover illustration of a tiger’s paw pushing through a slightly ajar door, suggests at both a menacing presence and, simply, that things are not quite right. There’s a tiger in the living room, after all.
It seemed to me a bold move to cast your lead character, Ruth, as an elderly woman without scandal, quietly living out her winter years alone in a house by the sea. But then Frida arrives, appearing at the top of the weathered garden path with a suitcase and the pronouncement that she’s here to assist Ruth. Frida, with her primped, nice-smelling hair and efficient outfits, is certainly not what she seems, and the pace of the unveiling of her true character and motivations is masterful. As readers we hold tight, cautious that a very real foreboding presence is now lapping at Ruth’s feet.
There are well-crafted changes in pace in The Night Guest: the plot accelerates like a thriller in parts, and slows in others to wander through Ruth’s memories of a childhood in Fiji with her missionary parents, threading together the lives of Ruth and Richard, a man she has known, and adored, since her teens. By the novel’s end, McFarlane has constructed a richly formed portrait of Ruth: she’s sensible, placing well-timed phone calls to her dutiful but distant adult sons, but surprises with flicks of wicked humour. Ruth’s husband, who died two years before the time when the book is set, is still crisply present in the landscape, but the picture of him ebbs away slowly and melodically. Sand blown in from the hedging dunes encroaches on the lawn like the fog that is clouding Ruth’s memory.
McFarlane effortlessly treads the line between the imagined and the real. The paw nudging through the door emerges with a poetic slowness; the tiger is at first a shimmering figure on the edge of Ruth’s mind before stretching itself into a looming beast. As readers, we move easily between what we know as real and what Ruth thinks she knows. Ruth herself traverses this wobbling of her world with a dignity that is, like the novel itself, quietly restrained and superbly heartbreaking.
Belle Place is the editor of Readings Monthly.