“Ruth woke at four in the morning and her blurry brain said, ‘Tiger.’ That was natural; she was dreaming. But there were noises in the house, and as she woke she heard them.”
Australian writer Fiona McFarlane’s debut novel The Night Guest is nothing short of stunning. When I finished the book, I said to myself: “How did she do that?” Normally, when reading a book (and especially for one I intend to review), I make marks and underline sentences, even going so far as to place multiple exclamation points next to important passages. I found myself barely making a notation and I realized the reason was because every line was so seamlessly constructed. All of the sentences were part of a whole instead of having certain ones stand out of higher quality than others.
The Night Guest begins with Ruth, a 75 year-old widow living in an Australian coastal town. One night she awakes to hear what she assumes to be a tiger in her house. She doesn’t go to investigate but she knows it was there, prowling through her home. The next morning as she is out in her garden, a mysterious woman named Frida appears and claims to be a caregiver sent by the government to assist Ruth in everyday household chores. Immediately, we are suspicious of Frida but Ruth is not. She doesn’t recall ever receiving notice of Frida’s arrival but easily buys into the mysterious woman’s explanation.
The novel starts very straightforwardly, but McFarlane is masterful at weaving memories of Ruth’s childhood in Fiji with her missionary parents in and out of the narrative. Soon, the memories become more vivid but as Ruth’s Fijian detailed memories become prominent in her mind, the present time with Frida slowly builds into a sinister and creepy reality. The identity of this woman in Ruth’s life is doubted and her behavior is increasingly more bizarre. Ruth’s own memory starts to become questionable, which makes the reader incredibly uncomfortable. With still partial lucidity, Ruth even considers asking her friend, “How can I tell if I’m losing my mind?”
Ruth’s days become foggier through McFarlane’s language. With each new sentence, the author manages to make the story creep forward and with every new sentence, a new level of anxiety is manifested in both Ruth and the reader. I felt lulled into a story, whose sentences and language would normally be allocated to a story of whimsy but the truly masterful thing that McFarlane has done is make this a horror story. She makes us question Ruth’s sanity and, in doing so, has presented a wonderful unreliability that is terrifying and mysterious.
There is an intriguing quick Q&A with Fiona McFarlane up on Penguin Books Australia but I suggest reading it after reading the book (it doesn’t necessarily give away plot points but it might dilute the mystery within the novel).