The Night Guest by Fiona McFarlane is set in New South Wales. It is the story of Ruth, a 75-year old widow who lives a mostly isolated life with her two cats. Ruth’s house is close to the ocean and in the distance she can watch whales. She spends her time pottering about and thinking of the past, particularly her early years in Fiji where she fell in love with a young man, Richard Porter whom she lost when he instead married an Asian bride.
One night, as she lies awake, Ruth thinks she can hear a tiger in her house. She picks up the telephone and calls one of her grown up sons, Jeffrey, who reassures her. Ruth knows she has imagined the tiger but still, her sense of his presence in the house seems real.
The day after Ruth dreamed of the tiger, a woman called Frida turns up. Frida claims to have been sent by the government to spend a couple of hours a week helping Ruth with her housework. But, from the outset, the reader is suspicious. Why does Frida arrive with a suitcase? Who really sent her and why?
For Ruth’s sons, Frida’s arrival seems a godsend but the reader senses danger. And, as Frida implants herself into Ruth’s life and Ruth becomes reliant on her, the reader’s concerns grow.
The story is told from Ruth’s perspective but Ruth is an unreliable narrator. She is troubled by back pain, for which she takes medication but is somewhat haphazard with her dosage. She carries pills in her pocket and takes them when she feels the need. And, she continues to sense the tiger’s presence. So can her perception be trusted? At the same time, Frida’s manipulation and control are menacing and we fear for Ruth’s safety.
The Night Guest by Fiona McFarlane is not so much a psychological thriller as it is a novel about the vulnerability of age. Menace and magic coexist in a story that hangs around in your head for days after you finish reading it.
If you enjoyed The Night Guest, you might also like Elizabeth is Missing.