“The Night Guest” opens with the lines, “Ruth woke at four in the morning and her blurry brain said ‘Tiger.’ That was natural; she was dreaming.” This sets up from the book’s inception an ambiguity about Ruth’s story that propels the mystery and pathos of Fiona McFarlane’s first novel. Ruth is a widow, who spends most of her time alone in a beach house up the coast from Sydney, where she and her husband, Harry, retired just before Harry died of a heart attack. Her sons, who live in New Zealand and Hong Kong, are vaguely worried by Ruth’s small lapses in judgment, so when a nurse shows up at Ruth’s doorstep one day “looking as if she had been blown in by the sea,” claiming to be a government carer, everyone — including Ruth — feels just a bit safer.
Coinciding with Frida’s windswept arrival is Ruth’s escalating confusion. Despite Ruth’s increasing dependence on her new carer, the reader is never certain whether Ruth is experiencing dementia or whether Frida is up to something much more ominous. McFarlane delicately and deftly intertwines these two characters’ lives with brilliant detail. Frida ends up living in the house without Ruth’s permission, and Ruth begins to feel as though she can’t live by herself without Frida’s obsessively mopped floors, pill dispensing and rules. As the novel progresses, Frida plays into Ruth’s tiger fantasies as well (though you’re not certain whether her game is to indulge her ward or confuse her) eventually convincing Ruth that she has stalked and killed the fearsome tiger.
Let me just get this out of the way: “The Night Guest” is not a happy book. It’s a devastating story about the fragility of aging, the ravages of loneliness and the terror of memory loss. It’s also superbly written. In McFarlane’s care, the ocean becomes its own character, its salty potential permeating the book’s pages. Swimming around inside Ruth’s head are delicately drawn flights of memory about a childhood in Fiji, a life in Sydney with her husband and sons and Ruth’s unrequited first love — a doctor named Richard with whom she reunites briefly during the course of the novel.
Treading water, like a tiger waiting to pounce, is Ruth’s increasingly fragmented perspective. Although “The Night Guest” is in third person, McFarlane drops her reader inside Ruth’s head and lets him or her float there. It’s disconcerting, this framework, obscuring something more sinister just beneath it, like the threat of drowning when you’ve swum out too far, and you’re not convinced you can make it back to shore.
“The Night Guest” is available at Bookstore1, 1359 Main St., Sarasota. Call 365-7900.
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