Recently, I’ve been in something of a reading slump. It’s not that I haven’t read any good books – I’ve read books that I enjoyed, reviewed positively, and would recommend – but nothing I was really excited about. Until I read The Night Guest. This was a book that made me smile, and then feel sad; this was a book that I couldn’t wait to carry on reading but also one that I wanted to read slowly so I didn’t get to the end too soon. It’s a book that I want to reread again and again.
Fiona McFarlane’s The Night Guest is told from the perspective of Ruth, an elderly widower living alone on the Australian coast. Her sons having moved away and the cats her only companions, Ruth starts to hear a tiger visiting her house at night. Her solitude is interrupted when Frida arrives, a carer sent by the Government to look after her. Should Ruth trust Frida? Is there really a tiger prowling through her house at night? It’s difficult to say much more without spoiling the story, but hopefully it will suffice to say that The Night Guest is a remarkable book that delicately explores love and loss, memory and ageing, and trust and second chances.
I knew from the first few chapters that I would enjoy this book. There are wonderful phrases that made me smile and Ruth is a fantastic, fun character. McFarlane writes many astute observations which perfectly create Ruth’s character, and there are many examples, but I particularly enjoyed this one:
“Skinny-dippers were a definite event, and Ruth liked the idea of them.”
I found observations like these humorous, not only because they were funny, but perhaps because they go against pre-conceived notions of what being elderly is and how someone who is elderly should be. Elsewhere, McFarlane perfectly captures the experience of a lonely, elderly woman who is filling her days with watching the sea and remembering her childhood and her husband.
Yet the book’s beginning lulls you into a false sense of security, with unsettling moments beginning to creep in, making you start to realise that things may not be as they seem. You start to doubt what you have read and felt before, and who you should trust.
A large part of the novel is about memory – Ruth often recounts her childhood growing up in Fiji with her missionary parents, and meeting Richard, a man she fell in love with there. As the novel progresses, we can see Ruth’s memory deteriorating and McFarlane does an extraordinary job in recreating this feeling for the reader. The way it’s written made me feel like Ruth at times – a little disorientated, unsure what’s going on, unsure who to trust. This means that there’s a continuing doubt in the reader’s mind in what, and who, we should believe, leading to a continued suspense throughout the novel that kept me turning each page.
On finishing the book, I felt a sense of loss – for both Ruth and for the book. I want to reread it – soon – not only for McFarlane’s incredible writing, but for reading the story again knowing what I know now. The Night Guest was a joy to experience and read, and the whole time I was reading, I felt as if I was in the hands of someone who knows what they’re doing – Fiona McFarlane is certainly a writer to watch. A delicate portrayal of growing old and fading memory, The Night Guest is an extraordinary debut and a book that I can’t recommend enough.
Have you read The Night Guest? What did you think?