I have to be honest – I did not like this debut novel from Australian author, Fiona McFarlane.
Ruth, a 75 year-old widow living alone on the edge of an (unnamed) east coast town, wakes up early one morning convinced there’s a tiger in her house. Later that morning, Frida sent ‘from the government’ as her morning help, turns up wheeling a suitcase.
And there’s the fundamental problem. In spite of a few minor reservations, Ruth’s son Jeffrey, living in New Zealand, is relieved that his mother has a part-time carer, sent from the government. Yet Ruth, with husband Harry, a former lawyer, has retired to what was once the three-bedroomed family holiday home. There’s a Mercedes in the driveway and (we find out later), $700,000 in the bank from the sale of the Sydney home. Yet Ruth gets a carer sent by the government? We know exactly where this little story is going from about page five.
Frida certainly takes control – Ruth is undoubtedly becoming a little forgetful (she’s lived on her own for almost five years since the death of Harry). And The Night Guest balances the cusp of forgetfulness, uncertainty and suggestion (Frida admits later she lied constantly and consistently). As Ruth forgets (or seemingly forgets) more recent events, so late teenage memories of Fiji and life with her missionary parents become more prevalent.
The Night Guest does, in its writing, have a certain charm. And as the unreliable narrator, Ruth and her perceptions of events around her are not always reliable. This adds an element of suspense as the story unfolds – has Ruth simply forgotten things and is Frida acting for the good of her charge?
The Night Guest explores ageing, manipulation, dependence and trust with a dose of symbolism regarding the impact of unwanted colonialism in the name of beneficence (missionaries in Fiji, Frida in Ruth’s home). Ruth desperately wants to maintain her independence, Frida injects psychological manipulation to undermine and, ultimately, defraud her.
McFarlane writes delicately and with tenderness. She is commenting on the neglect of the elderly by absent family members and neighbours without overly apportioning blame. Yet, with the risk of being pedantic, I could not get past the ‘from the government’ lie that sets the whole thing in motion.
The Night Guest was shortlisted for the 2014 Miles Franklin Award – no mean feat for a debut novel considering the list featured previous winners Tim Winton and Alexis Wright as well as Richard Flanagan’s Man Booker Prize winning The Narrow Road to the Deep North. But they all lost out to Evie Wylde and All the Birds, Singing.