Here’s a book that’ll make you call your aging parents. Fiona McFarlane’s debut, The Night Guest—a quiet, twisting story of an elderly woman and her mysterious “government carer”—is a fright that keeps one guessing not only what will happen next, but what is actually happening.
Ruth Field, an Australian widow whose sons live far away, gets the strange and vivid feeling one night that a tiger is in her house. In the morning, another shows up on Ruth’s isolated beachside doorstep: large, charismatic Frida Young, who claims to be Ruth’s new nurse, assigned by the government. Ruth is wary, but drawn to the exotic woman, who reminds her of her childhood in Fiji with her missionary parents. Producing apparently legitimate papers, Frida insinuates herself into Ruth’s home. But as Ruth grows more comfortable with her “guest,” the question looms: Is Frida there to help or harm?
Meanwhile, memories of Fiji flood Ruth’s consciousness, especially those of her first love, Richard. They haven’t seen each other in 50 years. Ruth invites him to visit. He comes. And now Ruth, whose days have passed unchanged since her husband’s death five years ago, now has a tiger, Frida and Richard to think about—even as it’s becoming harder and harder to think. As Ruth’s mind begins to go, McFarlane piles on the suspense, perfectly capturing the alternating numbness and sneaking fear of disorientation. Ruth’s memories become more poignant as they become confused, and McFarlane examines the power of roots, the nature of perception and the reality of aging. Ruth is a three-dimensional person, not an “old lady” void of feelings and desire—she sets the stage for her most compelling act of all: exposing the terror of dependence. What will Frida do next? What will become of Ruth?
Set almost exclusively inside Ruth’s house, The Night Guest is a claustrophobic cautionary tale that evokes dread, but also detachment. This is because we’ve been placed so expertly inside Ruth’s fogged mind. To make us feel that numb confusion from the inside, as well as tragic sadness as observers, is a graceful feat. McFarlane is a well-rounded one to watch.