Review of The Night Guest


I hadn’t intended to review The Night Guest. While I enjoyed reading it, I didn’t like the ending and the book left me with a clammy feeling that I didn’t want to revisit. However, as I’ve been musing about animals and carers for my book When the World Shivered, I thought might be worth thinking about further, as The Night Guest features both.

This is the story of Ruth, an elderly widow who lives on an isolated stretch of coast, and believes herself to be visited by a tiger. After its first foray into the house, in which she hears the noises it makes, ‘loud and wet, with a low, guttural breathing hum punctuated by little cautionary yelps’ (2), she is reminded ‘of something vital – not of youth, exactly, but of the urgency of youth’ (6). Her childhood was spent on Fiji, where her parents were missionaries, and where she fashioned an unrequited romance for a doctor.

Shortly after the tiger’s first manifestation, a woman named Frida arrives to take care of Ruth. Rather than being preyed up on by the tiger, Ruth is gradually, subtly, threatened by this carer, a muscular woman who is also from Fiji. She tends to Ruth so efficiently that Ruth cannot see how she would survive without her, and at the same time she infiltrates Ruth's few relationships and persuades her to sell her car.

McFarlane’s hand is surest when she bleeds reality and fiction into one another through Ruth’s wavering point of view. The reader is uncertain as to whether Frida is friend or foe, or whether Ruth is losing her mind and cannot read the situation clearly. The ending provides answers, but until this point, the reader is held in suspense.

Herein lies the horror of the story. Ruth is physically, intellectually and emotionally isolated, and vulnerable to the depredations of others. A woman who is mean to care for her becomes a predator, like the tiger. And yet the bond between them is close, as it would be when people’s daily rhythms are knotted together. An acquaintance, Ellen, muses ‘She remembered the way Ruth and Frida had run together like lovers, and how embarrassed she’d been by that intimacy, and, later, how unsettled’ (273). The tiger also has multivalent meanings, being at times threatening, and at other times a delight. At the end of the novel, Ruth ‘leaned her head into his soft chest, where his great heart ticked’ (268).

Frida is yoked with the tiger through this thematic similarity and their simultaneous appearance, and through a scene towards the end in which Frida fights the animal. ‘There had been no beginning to Frida and the tiger, and now there would be no end,’ McFarlane writes. ‘They both snarled and bared their teeth, Frida called out the strange syllables of a warlike alphabet’ (224). These similarities can be read as a metaphor for colonialism, for the imposition of power upon vulnerable subjects, and how they fight back. The tiger invokes Ruth’s childhood and her missionary parents, who colonised Fijians through Christianity, and at the same time it reminds us that we are really not so different from animals: we are both prey and predator as we try to survive.

The vivid evocation of Ruth’s childhood also suggests the circularity of our lives – when we are old, we become like children. Our minds, sometimes sharp and sometimes wandering, can be just as fantastical as theirs, but while this is tolerated in young people, it isn’t so much in the elderly.

There is much to plumb in this novel, which won the NSW Premier’s award and was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin. I heard McFarlane speak at the Association for the Study of Australian Literature conference last year (ASAL always have at least one session to showcase Australian writers, which I think is great) and thought her intellectually astute. She has a book of short stories coming out soon, The High Places, which will be published by Penguin and, based on this book, well worth a read.


This is my 8th review for the Australian Women Writers Challenge.



On Exhaustion


People never ask me what it's like to be deaf, or what I find hard about it. As I lost most of my hearing when I was four and had some speech therapy, my speech is fine, and people don't realise I have a disability until I tell them. Even then, they don't realise how bad it is, because I seem to listen so well. And because I am polite, and hate people making a fuss, I rarely remind them to speak clearly.

It's not the isolation that's difficult – I’ve found ways around that through writing, reading and a small circle of close friends, though it took me a good twenty years to learn the social skills I needed to make friends, and those twenty years were excruciating. Nor is it the inconsideration of people who assume that you’re rude or simple because you haven’t heard them; I accept that I don’t have a visible disability and that, for the most part, people aren’t deliberately unkind. Nor is it the cultural apartheid of cinemas and performance venues that don’t care enough about their deaf patrons to ensure working loop systems, or even to install such systems at all, such as the Cineplex cinemas in Brisbane. On asking the manager at Hawthorne why they didn’t have a hearing system, I was told that the movies they showed were blockbusters, which were so loud that deaf people can hear them. I would have laughed if I wasn’t so angry; it’s quality of sound, not loudness, that makes the difference. Meanwhile, the headphones at Palace Centro are patched up with duct tape, and those at Palace Barracks were broken for months. When I complained about the latter and pointed out that it was discriminatory, I was told that I was being ridiculous. I never went back. I have taken my money elsewhere and I watch films at home, or only go to screenings with subtitles, or watch dance performances that don’t require listening to words.

These are irritations and, like cuts and scratches, they always heal and fade. But the one thing I can never get over is the perpetual exhaustion. I have 25% of an average person’s hearing, and I rely on this bit of hearing and lipreading to get by. I can’t hear with loud background noise, nor in a group larger than three, and even then that’s hard. And as I’ve lost one sense, I’m constantly alert to compensate for it – to check someone’s face in case they’re speaking to me, to strain to hear the words in a sentence and match them with body language, to read lips and put the words into context, to work out how to get some information at a train or bus station when I can’t hear the overhead speakers. The energy necessary to maintain this level of vigilance is enormous.

These past few months I’ve been teaching creative writing one day a week at the University of Queensland. The classes were small enough for me to hear without passing round the transmitter of my FM system (which is like a small walkie talkie for deaf people), though I asked students to use it when they were reading because their heads dipped down to their papers and I couldn’t read their lips. I had to be completely alert so that I could hear their contributions and respond to them. It made the discussions a bit stilted as I could only hear one person talking at a time, but I figured they were adult enough to deal with that.

I loved my students. They tried hard, they listened to the lectures and my tutorials, and they improved in a very short time. Teaching creative writing also helped me to remember my own knowledge about writing, and to refocus on the nuts and bolts of my craft. However, I was so tired by the semester’s end, and so frustrated that I hadn’t had any energy to write, that I resolved to stick to my other, two-days-a-week admin job and write, even if that meant living on baked beans for six months.

Then I was insanely lucky enough to get funding from the Australia Council to work on my young adult novel, When the World Shivered, and the future isn’t looking quite so grim - a huge and unutterable relief. I've only had a handful of days off since February, and this means that I can have evenings and weekends off.

This novel will be based on my short story of the same name, which was published in the Review of Australian Fiction. The novel about the relationships between children with disabilities and their animals. I started thinking about it when I went to the Artists with Disabilities conference in Sydney last year, and watched people with their carers. The carers were people who wanted to be there and who were paid for it, but what would happen, I wondered, if a person with a disability was matched with someone who wasn’t temperamentally suited to caring? I was lucky as I grew up because my brother has a generous disposition and likes an audience, so he was happy to relay information to me that I missed (albeit often elaborated upon; the Whites are nothing if not performers). But what if I hadn’t had that kind of sibling, if my sibling was someone who just wanted to be left alone and not have to look after someone else?

I started thinking about companion animals, and dogs, and how we have domesticated them, which can also be seen as a way of keeping them close to us without their will. Do dogs really want to be dependent on us? Do horses want to carry people around? These are the kinds of ideas I’ll be exploring in the novel. I’ll also be reading books about animals and humans (if you have any recommendations, leave them in the box below!), and I’m about to write a post on Helen McDonald’s H is for Hawk. With luck, given my tortured schedule, I should have it up later this week.

I’ve also finally got back on the bandwagon with my author newsletters. If you’d like to be on the mailing list for these, you can sign up here.


On Being Alive Again


Well, I made it through, although the angel fish didn't.  While I endured three months of unremitting hell, Andromeda made revolutions of her tank that became slower and slower.  Eventually she sank to the rocks at the bottom, her eyes disturbingly dark, and H buried her in the garden.  He then bought me four more fish to cheer me up, but three of them died too.  I am relinquishing my dreams of having a wall-length aquarium; I think a beagle called Basil will be a safer bet.

So, the thesis has been submitted and I am enjoying the unsurpassed delight of waking up and realising I don't have to go to the British Library.  I have the leisure to read for pleasure not for study, to have a social life that involves going out more than once a month and also permits alcoholic beverages, and to contemplate, heaven forbid, finding a bloke who isn't intimidated by my possession of four degrees, including an (almost) doctorate.

I rewarded myself with a trip to San Francisco, and shopped my little heart out in Anthropologie, and stocked up on skin products and Benefit makeup.  At a friend's recommendation I took the boat to Alcatrez, which I hadn't visited though I spent a year on exchange in Berkeley in 1999.  I confess to enjoying the aloe garden more than the prison, which had an interminable audio recording (which I couldn't hear well) of men attempting escape by digging themselves out with spoons.  I also stopped by Coit Tower and enjoyed the smell of eucalyptus in the morning heat.  Then I went across the bay and stayed with a friend in Berkeley, though the poor boy had his orals the following week and I was anxious about disturbing him.  

It was odd to be back in Berkeley.  I visited the cafes I used to sit in and read, walked over the beautiful campus which was at its loveliest in the dying afternoon light, and contemplated visiting my old boss at Bancroft Library but decided against it as I couldn't think what to say to him.  I also met up with my friend K and it was lovely to see him again, and he kindly drove me to the airport.  On the flight home, which was half empty, I read Nam Le's The Boat which was one of the best things I've read all year.  All of his stories, bar one, were flawless, and I fought with my usual feelings of jealousy.   

I flew into Brisbane and was surprised, as I always am, by the friendliness of the people at immigration and customs.  The latter even cracked a joke about rescuing my Pimms as it went through the X-ray machine.  My sister and the kids met me, and over the next few days I attempted to sort out my jetlag.  I met SP and the gorgeous boy bought me a bottle of champers and took me to dinner, though we were both exhausted and frayed.  On Friday I flew to Sydney for L's 30th birthday.  I stayed with Cousin A, and had emailed him previously to check that he was in possession of an iron.  I was impressed to find, on arrival, that he had cleaned his flat, and he whipped out the iron, but unfortunately it leaked all its water over my Sacha Drake silk maxi dress.  I was going to use it again the next day but found it, to my amusement, in pieces beside the kitchen sink.  

It was pissing with rain as I stepped out, and the traffic in Sydney appears to be much worse.  At Hyde Park I gave up and got out of the bus, but couldn't walk the rest of the way to Circular Quay because of my stupid (but pretty) stiletto sandals, so I had to catch the train for just one stop.  Although I was furious by this point, I enjoyed the drama of gathering up my masses of black-and-white silk skirt and tottering across the road.  Finally I made it to the Opera House bar and said Happy Birthday to L and caught up with H, whom I hadn't seen for two whole weeks.  He was sick with the flu and had no sympathy for my rage at the traffic, but I ranted regardless.  We caught taxis back to Kingsford for dinner at an Indonesian restaurant, and were overjoyed to see R.  We made so much noise that L's father came and told R to quieten down, so H and I started telling 'My sister's deaf!' stories at the top of our voices.  At the end of the evening we found we had overpaid the bill so L began distributing the change and R attempted to stuff $10 down my cleavage.  I burst out laughing, and H later said to R that he was impressed he'd got that far.  'I'm mellowing, R,' I told him.  'Yeah, right,' he replied.

I caught the train home to mum and dad's to save on carbon emissions, which entailed an 8.5 hour journey, as opposed to one hour by plane, which cost just the same.  I didn't mind it that much, despite being stuck next to a young mother with two wriggling kids, as I always like watching the landscape pass by.

Currently, I am writing fiction, enjoying the summer and drinking too many of the aforementioned alcoholic beverages, which is necessary to endure the cabin fever brought on by the descension of relatives at Christmas, the unbearably high energy levels of my sister and the kids and my family's complete inability to register any comprehension of the concept of privacy, which means that four people invariably walk in on me when I try to shower in the mornings.  Yesterday everyone except mum and I went to a nearby amusement park, where they looked at a museum of taxidermed two-headed cows and lamb corpses found in ewes struck by lightening (yes, only in Australia) and played on water slides built with scant regard for health and safety regulations.  I had a most pleasant day in the peace, fixing a short story and taking the dog for a walk to the video store, although said dog shat outside said video store and I forgot to bring a plastic bag, so I walked on unheeding.

In a few days we go to the coast for my birthday, whereupon I shall attempt to do something about my fluorescent skin, and continue to catch up on my three-month deficit of sleep.  It is strange to believe that, after four years of dislocation and stress, I can finally have a life again. Bring on 2009, I say.