The Night Guestby Fiona McFarlane Published 01 Oct 2013
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|Publisher||Farrar, Straus and Giroux|
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Ruth is widowed, her sons are grown, and she lives in an isolated beach house outside of town. Her routines are few and small. One day a stranger arrives at her door, looking as if she has been blown in from the sea. This woman—Frida—claims to be a care worker sent by the government. Ruth lets her in.
Now that Frida is in her house, is Ruth right to fear the tiger she hears on the prowl at night, far from its jungle habitat? Why do memories of childhood in Fiji press upon her with increasing urgency? How far can she trust this mysterious woman, Frida, who seems to carry with her, her own troubled past? And how far can Ruth trust herself?
"The Night Guest" Reviews
this book perfectly illustrates that whole frog-in-boiling-water scenario.
it starts out in a fairly straightforward way, telling the story of ruth, an elderly, widowed woman living alone in a remote beach house in australia. she has two grown sons, with busy lives and children of their own, who phone her periodically, but her life is largely solitary and lonesome. she has a tendency to sit around and meditate on the past - on her missed opportunities, and on the happiest times of her life, when she was a young woman living in fiji.
one night, she is awakened by hearing what she believes to be a tiger in her house. she phones one of her sons, and although he tells her she is just dreaming, he is concerned about her mental state and the practicality of her continuing to live alone.
the next morning a woman named frida arrives, claiming to be sent by the government to assist ruth with her household chores, for just a few hours a week. ruth believes frida is from fiji, and her increasing presence in ruth's life begins to intensify her memories and to open doors ruth had considered long-closed.
and then the slow simmer begins.
we have an unreliable narrator in ruth, a daydreamy woman whose age has begun to affect her memory and her perception. and we have frida, a woman who may be more, or less, than she appears.
we have a story in which the reader becomes immersed, slowly realizing that troubling things are happening, ever so subtly, whose ramifications are going to be far-reaching and devastating, but are not consciously registered until they are too obvious to ignore.
we have a book that is nearly impossible to review without spoilers.
it's a very delicately-rendered story about aging, manipulation, dependence, and trust. it is about the often treacherous bond between women, and what inner strength remains in someone whose life is slowly being chipped away. it's about the hope and possibilities and romance that unexpectedly appear, and the things that can be overlooked when an empty life suddenly becomes full again. it's about choosing not to see, and how quickly trust can grow in people who live in social isolation .
this is a masterful psychological suspense story which is sort of magical-realism, but sort of an all-too-true cautionary tale, and for a first-novel, it is a stunner.
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The Night Guest, first novel by Australian author Fiona McFarlane, is a disturbing psychological thriller. Not a typical thriller, but one that creeps up on you as you progress through the book. Ruth, widowed, and living on an isolated Australian beach, is all of a sudden visited by a disheveled woman named Frida supposedly sent by the government. Frida starts taking over Ruth's life little by little. Meanwhile we see Ruth losing her sense of reality and independence.
This is a book about aging, memory loss, trust, fear and munipulation. I choose the audiobook and found parts very difficult to listen to due to the subject matter - the deterioration of the mind. Throughout you can't help but have the uneasy feeling - please don't ever happen to me!
4 out of 5 stars.
4.5 rounded up. Forgive the uber-long review, but I loved this book and really want to share.
I don't know the last time I've ever been this unsettled by a novel. I started it, was intrigued, picked it up again the next day and read until just after 3 a.m. when I finished it. Then I couldn't sleep for another hour and a half, mulling over what I'd just read and trying to calm the anxiety this most excellent book had caused me. The Night Guest is author Fiona McFarlane's first novel and if this is her first outing, I will probably buy every book this woman writes.
Harry and Ruth Field bought a lovely beachside home up the coast from Sydney after Harry's retirement. Sadly, it isn't too long afterwards that Harry dies, leaving Ruth alone. She's 75, with two sons, one in Hong Kong who is always busy and one in New Zealand. Ruth gets through her day through "symmetry," for example, always starting her journey up a flight of stairs on her left foot, ending it on her right, or believing that if dinner was ready by the six o'clock news, her sons would be there for Christmas. As the novel begins, Ruth awakens at four in the morning after hearing noises in the house. She'd heard these noises before, at a German zoo: "loud and wet, with a low, guttural breathing hum punctuated by little cautionary yelps, as if it might roar at any moment ... like a tiger eating some large bloody thing..." A phone call to her son Jeffrey in New Zealand puts her mind at rest and reminds her that the tiger was likely nothing more than a dream, but she realizes that "something important" was happening. The next day, looking out at the sea, Ruth tells herself that "If one person walks on the beach in the next ten minutes, there's a tiger in my house at night; if there are two, the tiger won't hurt me; if there are three, the tiger will finish me off."
It is then that Frida arrives, sent by the government to be Ruth's carer. A quick conversation with Ruth's son Jeffrey establishes how Frida came to be there:
"A state programme. Her name was on file, and a spot opened up...An hour a day to start with. It's more of an assessment, just to see what's needed, and we'll take things from there."
Jeffrey is delighted at the "good use of taxpayers' money," but Ruth is "not sure about this," thinking she's "not doing badly." But then again, Ruth is somewhat assured because Frida is "Fijian," since Ruth spent part of her childhood in Fiji with her missionary medical parents. And, Ruth tells herself, she's only 75, and her mother had been over 80 "before things really began to unravel."
Things seem to be going well for Ruth with the addition of Frida into her home. Frida extends her hours, and Ruth seems happy when Frida takes on the shopping, bill paying, cleaning, meal preparation and banking. Soon enough the two settle into a comfortable routine. Ruth tells Frida about her life in Fiji, Frida tells her about her brother and her family, and Ruth comes to depend on Frida's help. Up against Frida's boisterous personality, Ruth's own fragile state starts to become obvious, and the reader senses that for Ruth it is somewhat of a blessing to be in Frida's company. But a visit from a friend from Ruth's past starts a long series of waking nightmares that quickly jolt the reader into realizing that all is indeed not well, and events occur that bring Ruth's dreams of being stalked by a predator into a waking reality.
The Night Guest is not an easy book to read on an emotional level. While I won't give away much, first, a lot of what happens is viewed through the lens of Ruth's mind. It's obvious early on that there's something not quite right with her -- she forgets to wash her hair for weeks, she's let her lovely garden become overgrown to the point where the sand is overtaking it, and chores that used to be done dutifully are also neglected. As things begin to take a turn for the worse, it is difficult to pinpoint whether or not Ruth's version of things are anywhere close to lucid and coherent, especially since there is an alternate point of view that gives the reader an impression that maybe Ruth's deteriorating and disoriented mind is imagining things, just as she imagined the tiger in her lounge room. This constant tug between versions of reality (and one of the best uses of reader manipulation I've experienced in a long time) is one of the best features of this novel -- the reader is always trying to decide what's really going on here, and in my case, the tension and sheer aura of menace produced by this story continued to grow up until the very end. Second, this book is incredibly sad and depressing -- there is not one iota of happiness in this book when all is said and done. However, unless the reader's heart is made of stone, the story ultimately should inspire a deep, beyond--gut-level empathy, and make you want to call one of your aging relatives more often. And even though I'm far far away from Ruth's age, I also came away feeling like "Oh my god, I hope I NEVER find myself in this position."
The only niggling thing is that explanations at the end come tumbling in a rather rushed manner, but by that time they don't really matter. As with so many books, in this one, it's more about the journey. The fact that this writer was able, with only words, to produce so much unease inside of me speaks to how well written I found this book to be. There are relatively few books I've read that move me like this one, that keep me up at night, and that still resonate days after reading them. I seriously cannot recommend this one highly enough. I loved this book.
An elderly widow, Ruth, lives alone - except for a couple of demanding cats - in a beach house somewhere in Australia. Here she is largely content with her solitary life, and spends a great deal of time reflecting on the past, particularly her youth in Fiji. This quiet existence is disturbed by two events: Ruth's conviction that she has heard a tiger prowling around her home at night, and the arrival, the next day, of a woman called Frida, who claims to be a government carer sent to help Ruth with household chores. At first, Frida's arrival brings positive changes, particularly when Ruth reconnects with her first love, Richard Porter. However, as Frida begins to exert a more obvious influence over Ruth's life - even moving into her house, despite her protestations - it becomes clear that something is not right about her presence and her intentions towards Ruth.
The Night Guest is a difficult book to review, partly because it is a highly unusual story and partly because it's hard to avoid spoilers when talking about the plot. Although the narrative is in third person, the story is told (largely) from Ruth's point of view, so the reader finds the same things confusing that Ruth does. There is also a hallucinatory quality to some of the story - is Ruth imagining the tiger in her home, or is this a magical tale? It's largely left to the reader to make up his or her own mind, and while this ambiguity could be confusing, it's handled well and retains a good balance throughout the book. Really, it's a traditional mystery wrapped in an unreliable narrator story wrapped in magical realism, and the different layers of interpretation make it constantly intriguing and eerie. For example, it is quickly obvious that there is something mysterious and possibly even threatening about Frida, but it's unclear whether this threat is real and solid or something of a more nebulous variety. I guess there are some fairly obvious holes in the plot, but because the story always keeps its ethereal feel, this doesn't matter as much as it might in a more straightforward novel - or, at least, it didn't matter to me. I also really liked the complexity of the relationship between Ruth and Frida: although it's difficult not to be incredibly suspicious of Frida, there's more depth to the character than you might expect, she's not simply a devious antagonist. McFarlane has also taken an unconventional route by using Ruth, whose thoughts and memories may not be accurate, as the narrator rather than Frida, the insidious newcomer. This is a great debut - a familiar type of story told in a very original way.
After reading this book, my mind is flooded with questions. Where have we gone as a society? How are we caring for our parents? What is it like in the mind of someone suffering dementia? And on and on. Much of that is answerable in our own conscience, which makes me believe the author has achieved her goal. And now I feel like phoning my dad. Like now.
This book seems to have two halves. I liken this to a chess match. The author takes the time to set up the board, carefully putting each piece in its respective place. Her writing is descriptive and wonderful. You feel the warmth of the Fiji Island. You sense the upbringing the protagonist, Ruth, had with her missionary parents. And then enter the other characters with little hints dropped along the way. Once you reach Act 2, the game begins. Pieces move, but you can't fathom the game ending move until last few plays. And like in chess, though you know the winner and loser via the call of check-mate, the actual act of knocking over the king may be anticlimactic. As such is the epilogue--quick and without the heft the rest of the book had.
The characters are relatable, even more so if you have witnessed anyone suffering from dementia. When Ruth places a call to her son, telling him about the tiger in her home, I am brought back to those calls in the middle of the night that my own parents received. And yet, I'm also reminded of how terribly far I am from my own family. Ruth, whose spark of life seems as strong as ever, whose husband has passed away, whose sons have moved far away, wants to continue living life to the fullest. This includes her driving, and even rekindling an old romance. But things just aren't that easy anymore, are they?
If this sounds like a tragic tale, it is. We lay witness to Ruth as her mind deteriorates. Along with the supposed tiger, a caretaker named Frida makes her appearance. Without giving away spoilers, and what is clear to the reader, there is something about Frida that makes you wonder. She shows up to care for Ruth, gives her these pills that make her a bit fuzzy, and, well, I think I've said enough. I'll say this though, by the time you get three-quarters through, it'll be hard to stop.
While this book may be slow to start, and while it does come with thought-provoking depression, I still highly recommend it. Others have called this a psychological thriller, and it is. The slow burn and set up are rewarded at the halfway point, when everything ramps up with expertly crafted words that sail cleverly to the end. My idea of a great book is one that makes me contemplate life and become a better person because of it. Night Guest has done just that. This book crushes me, but that's a good thing.
I am still feeling disturbed.
‘The Night Guest’ is a haunting novel. It depicts the frailty of those who lose the ability to maintain independence, and the psychological manipulation that can be injected into such a fragile situation.
Ruth lives alone following the death of her husband. She is content in her solitude, enjoying the peace of the seaside location and finding comfort in small routines from which her decision making ability is largely based. Enter Frida, sent by the government to assist Ruth with cleaning, shopping and chores which require some physical mobility. Frida seems a larger-than-life character who brings joy, companionship, and motherly concern to Ruth’s retired life.
However, like Kathy Bates in ‘Misery’ the situation soon plants uncomfortable niggles for the reader, not least a sense that Ruth is being slowly removed and conditioned against the outside world and external parties. Financial undertones in conversation, appeals to sympathy, and the pretense of a life downtrodden paint the unfortunate picture that is seen often enough in news headlines and current affair programs: an abuse of power leaving an aging person in financial and emotional ruin
From the beginning, Ruth describes a tiger which lurks within her house, bringing with it the smells, sounds and humidity of a jungle from her childhood. This tiger becomes the property of Frida – ‘Frida’s Tiger’ – and is slaughtered in an epic, yet unseen battle which leaves Ruth eternally grateful for her carer’s presence and heroic gesture. This is representative of all Frida comes to mean to Ruth. An increase in dependence is not only seen by the reader, but evokes feelings of anger, injustice, sadness.
Fiona McFarlane’s novel is tightly written, gripping, and consistent in progression. She has chosen a difficult subject and carries it forth with chilling ‘believability’. Reading this, I wanted nothing more than to save Ruth from the clutches of Frida, to remind her of the truth, to protect her from vile psychological influence. Any story with an unreliable narrator presents questions that may never be answered, and ‘The Night Guest’ certainly fulfilled that for me.