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.

 

 

Review of Hopscotch

 
11.jpg

 

When I was slipping this book into my bag to take to work, my boyfriend asked me, ‘What’s that one about?’

‘It’s a family drama.’

‘Why not just a drama?’

I paused, blinking. ‘I don’t know.’

As I sat on the bus and fell into my usual habit of staring out the window and thinking, I wondered if I had unconsciously taken on some kind of bias. Why should a drama always signify war zones or shoot-em-ups? Why, when it enters the (historically feminised) realm of the family should it be classified as a different type of drama?

I made a note not to use that phrase again, particularly as I’d offered to review this book for the Australian Women Writers Challenge when I got talking to Jan Zwar (who knows the author, Jane Messer) at a conference. One of the aims of the AWW Challenge is to redress the tendency to overlook writing that is written by women, or may have feminine subject matter.

The drama in Hopscotch comes not from car chases, but from the tension in the Rosen family. The Prologue finds them gathered around the table for Sam, their father’s, birthday. Already there is bickering, tentative singing, forced jollity, tears and shouting, while the opening line, ‘Hours before the spring winds crashed through, the sash windows rattled only a little’ signals the disorder to come.

The novel then backtracks to four months earlier and follows the lives of the three Rosen children, Mark, Jemma and Liza. Mired in debt as the GFC hits, Mark and his marriage begin to crack with strain. Jemma, a new resident of Redfern, finds her stereotypical assumptions of Aborigines are challenged when she becomes the victim of crime. Liza is desperate for a child, which doesn’t look like it’s going to happen with her current boyfriend.

This is a middle-class family, dealing with the everyday concerns of mortgages and relationships in Sydney. The strength of the novel lies in its detailed rendition of how the characters negotiate their daily lives, buffeted by the unpredictable forces of illness, desire, violence and financial markets. Although there was so many people in the Prologue that it took me a while to work out who was who, and I found the metaphor of Jemma pleading with her family to harmonise the tune of ‘Happy Birthday’ somewhat forced, I was soon pulled into these characters’ worlds.

Each person was well-drawn and consistent, and the push-pull of their relationships was believable. Sam, edging towards death with cystic fibrosis, is apathetic with tiredness, much to his wife’s frustration. Life doesn’t stop when one becomes sick, and Rhonda, impatient, arranges for them to sell up and move. The use of focalisation (of narrating a character’s thoughts in third person), is excellent: ‘He would always be out of reach; she would never be able to repair him or love him or make him well again. She couldn’t stand him … In the kitchen, the boiling kettle whistled. She would make him tea’ (213).

Neither does life stop for Mark, who is crushed by the debris of falling markets. His paranoia, then full-blown terror, over losing his job is mesmerising. Up to his neck in debt, panicking about how to find money for his wife and potential child, he becomes deluded and resentful: ‘He was going to be sacked in the morning, Ingrid was on the lounge resting and not working to save their financial arses, and he was going to struggle to get the funds for the Dee Why deal’ (275). Ingrid is irritating, with her nose constantly in pregnancy magazines, but she rallies when disaster strikes.

While Mark’s life falls apart, the sisters’ lives knit slowly and surely into something stronger. Jemma, uptight, neurotic and recently moved out of home, is traumatised by violence but released into the delight of a new relationship. Liza, after dating a string of deadbeats, slowly becomes more secure through managing a childcare centre. I loved the administrative details of her job and her placation of fractious parents, maybe because I'm obsessed with order myself.

When the novel finished, I was disappointed that I couldn’t read anymore of the characters’ thoughts about childcare, the cloud, or the invasion of online privacy. I wanted to stay involved in their lives, and kept thinking about them for a week afterwards.

Usually, for me, this is the sign of a good book. Yet, while Hopscotch is an undeniably enjoyable read, I also found the plot frustratingly formless and I wanted more ideas to mull over. I couldn’t get much more from it that the notion that people must always deal with the stressors and unpredictability of life regardless of how well-off they are. This aside, if you’d like an engaging snapshot of middle-class relationships in Sydney’s mid-noughties, with drama aplenty to keep you turning the pages, play Hopscotch and you’ll find yourself having fun!

 

This is my third review for the Australian Women Writers Challenge. If you'd like to subscribe to these posts and other updates, you can sign up here.