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.