The night guest by Fiona McFarlane – a thriller

Cover image of The night guest

The night guest, by Fiona McFarlane, tells a chilling story of ageing, dementia – and elder abuse. The author’s debut novel, published in 2013 leads the reader on thrilling roller-coaster ride. I discovered The night guest in a second-hand bookshop recently. I’m glad I did because it mesmerised me from beginning to end.

The premise of The night guest

An ageing widow, Ruth, lives with her two cats in an isolated house on a sand dune in a seaside town in New South Wales. Once a beach-house shared with her husband and two children, the house has deteriorated. Her sons, Jeffrey and Phillip, live overseas.

We are told, in the opening sentence, that Ruth wakes early one morning to the strange sound of a large animal in her lounge room. She calls Jeffrey in New Zealand and tells him about this night guest.

‘I can hear a tiger, not roaring, just panting and snorting. It’s like he’s eating, and also concentrating very hard’, she says. So she knew he was a male tiger and that was a comfort; a female tiger seemed more threatening.

Jeffrey dismisses her fears, telling her it could not be a tiger. She knows that, on one level. He patronises his mother with ‘serene weariness’. He tells his wife in gestures that his mother is having ‘one of her moments’. He distances himself from her even further than through geography.

The tiger of Ruth’s imagination continues to make itself present.

But soon someone else appears in Ruth’s life, driven by George in a yellow taxi. We begin wonder about his role. The new person, Frida, says she’s been sent by the government to care for Ruth. A strong, dependable woman with hair that amazes Ruth, she takes charge of the house. Little by little, she assumes responsibility for more than the house-keeping.

As the story develops, we learn of Ruth’s childhood as the daughter of medical missionaries in Fiji. We learn about her friendship with a young doctor, Richard, who worked in her father’s clinic. Young Ruth fell in love with him, but somehow it had slipped his mind to tell her of his engagement to a Japanese woman in Australia.

More than one night visitor

Over time, the relationship between Ruth and Frida develops. Ruth becomes increasingly dependent on Frida. At the same time, Frida takes more and more liberties with Ruth, her house and possessions until she finally moves into the house. She takes up residence in the room which Phillip once occupied.

Ruth and Richard renew their friendship. Soon Frida arranges for Richard, by now himself a widower, to spend the night with Ruth. The description of their ensuing love-making may be one of the most sensitive and poignant accounts I’ve read. It reminded me of a somewhat similar passage in Our Souls at Night, which I also reviewed.

Sadly, the relationship between Ruth and Richard goes no further, or so it seems.

Which of these three night guests provides the idea for the title of the book? We never find out, but each could be the one.

Three night guests: of which should we be most terrified?

What I like most about The night guest

There are numerous things to like and enjoy in The night guest. Here are a few that I specially enjoyed.

  • The suspense and threat as we read. The questioning: What is real? What comes from Ruth’s failing mind? How do we reconcile the pieces of the story? How can this possibly end?
  • Page after page of memorable language follow each other from start to finish. Fiona McFarlane works wonders with words. Description, metaphors, characterisation all bloom in this work, and are never tiresome or tiring.
  • The novel is a fable, but it is also rich, intense and convincing in the way all good novels should be.
  • The imagination of the writer, who tells this amazing story, goes beyond what most of us could make up.
  • The characters, even the minor ones, in this novel seem to come from real life. One example is the butcher who serves Ruth when she escapes from her house. He serves her lamb chops. Apparently flirting with her, he throws in a couple of sausages. We recognise each of the characters with their good points and their failings.
  • The way the author foretells action which is to come, so that it makes sense when it occurs.

Take-home lessons

While I enjoyed this novel immensely, I am also conscious that can be experienced as essentially a novel about elder abuse.

As a long-time advocate for the rights of older people, I am acutely aware of the incidence of elder abuse in Australia. The night visitor epitomises the stages of emotional, psychological and physical abuse wherever interpersonal abuse occurs, not only with older persons.

With that in mind, I highly recommend it for

  • lovers of beautiful prose,
  • those who like a good thriller,
  • anyone whose interests extend to literature about ageing,
  • book clubs,
  • advocates for older people,
  • those who want to know more about elder abuse.

This review forms part of my response to the Australian Women Writers’ Challenge, 2020.

6 replies on “The night guest by Fiona McFarlane – a thriller”

    1. It certainly is an amazing book, Sue. Different from most of the literary fiction, mysteries and women’s literature I usually turn to, but right up there with the best. It was short-listed for a prestigious Australian award.

    1. I’m not surprised you loved it, Fiona. We seem to have remarkably similar reading tastes. I do wish you lived in Western Australia! I’d love to talk to you in person.

  1. I loved this book too Maureen – particularly the way it played with your mind, never quite answering all your questions, about what was going on and therefore making you think about the various possibilities which, I suppose, is often how we think about another person’s life. We see on the outside, and we make assumptions about whats and whys but we never really know whether we are right!

    1. Thanks for that insight, Sue Terry. I found ‘The Night Guest’ quite creepy, as well as thrilling. It seems like a classical story of abuse, with not only the protagonist but also the reader undergoing gaslighting to throw them off psychological balance. A brilliant story.

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