Fiona McFarlane’s début novel The Night Guest has incited acute responses from readers since its issue in the author’s native Australia back in August.
“The comments I get from people finishing the book is, firstly, that they hate [protagonist Ruth’s] sons . . . and secondly, that they had to call their mother,” McFarlane says. Provoking the former is an achievement considering the reader only encounters Ruth’s sons in person in the novel’s closing pages: they both live outside of New South Wales (and outside of Australia, too), their mother’s isolated base.
“I am interested in the ways in which older people are suffering from different forms of isolation, as families are becoming more geographically spread out,” McFarlane, who lived outside of Australia for 11 years, says. “There is an incredible burden of guilt, and new arrangements of love and responsibility take place when you live tens of thousands of kilometres away from your family. I think that’s what is fascinating about the way that some people have responded to [Phillip and Jeffrey].”
McFarlane’s feat is due in no small part to the painting of widowed Ruth, the novel’s septuagenarian mainstay. When she senses the titular night guest—a large, male tiger—skirting her living room, the logical reader questions her mental health, and is relieved when Frida Young, a government-sent carer, comes to help Ruth on a daily basis.
Yet Frida’s introduction raises questions more intriguing than the intermittent appearances of the tiger; and so begins a relationship fraught with tenderness, trauma and tragedy. As Ruth’s carer encroaches on the narrative—and on her personal space—the reader remains uncertain as to Ruth’s complicity. “Trust Frida” she scrawls on a detective novel. But can she?
“I didn’t use a first-person narrator because I knew it would be too easy to write a typical ‘unreliable narrator’. I was much more interested in the flexibility of having a really close third-person narrator,” McFarlane says. “Everything is filtered through Ruth’s experience. Nothing happens in the book that she couldn’t have seen or heard happen.”
One of the book’s principle pleasures is trying to decipher fact from fiction. Erratic acts abound, and subtle suggestions and manipulations are commonplace—Frida appears to lock Ruth in the house, yet she returns with flowers; Ruth heads to the train station to travel to Sydney, only to return to a sobbing Frida with lamb chops.
“Frida was enormous fun to write… the trickiest thing was not to get carried away in the majesty of Frida. I wanted to create someone who you would not necessarily think of as a black-and-white villain. I was really interested in the idea of care, and motivations for care . . . Sometimes people can be tenderly terrible and sometimes people can be appallingly caring.”
While the novel is mostly based in Ruth’s coastal home, it is hardly claustrophobic. Raised in Fiji by missionary parents (“that idea of care was tied for me to the idea of an imperial presence in the south Pacific”), Ruth waxes nostalgic about her teenage years there, and in particular her first love, Richard Porter. When Richard, also a widower, visits Ruth, old sentiments surface; when he suggests she relocate to his Sydney home, the narrative pace increases. Ruth’s behaviour becomes more and more bizarre; Frida’s temperament less sparing, her actions more forceful.
And what of the nocturnal guest? “Ruth’s relationship to the tiger changes throughout the book. She has lived a life that has been quite consciously ordinary, and now something extraordinary is happening—that’s important to her.
“A friend of mine was talking about how tigers keep appearing in Victorian literature, and they kept appearing in children’s literature from then on,” McFarlane says. “The idea that this figure that is both exotic and terrifying can creep from the outer edges of the British Empire into the Victorian nursery, and unsettle things there . . . at one level it’s a safe threat, and at another it’s something quite frightening.
"That’s where the beginning of the book came from. I wanted to explore empire and the idea of colonial consequences right from the beginning.” (A plot device for serious themes it may be; happily it’s also given designers in Australia, the US and the UK scope for playful, striking jackets—publishers in 13 other territories will get a chance to follow suit.)
As The Night Guest builds towards a dramatic climax, the chasm between the two women becomes irrevocable, and the reader’s loyalties become more pronounced. The book’s final third has an eerie, thrilling feel, something McFarlane welcomes: “I like the flexibility of literary fiction; it can encompass lots of genres. Many people have talked about it as a literary thriller. It’s not how I thought about it as I wrote it. But I’m fine with it being thrilling—that sounds great to me!”
The Night Guest by Fiona McFarlane is out now, published by Sceptre.