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.



Just Read Readathon


The last readathon I did was in Boggabri Primary School, when I asked my rellies to sponsor me for each book I read. They nervously nominated 5c per book, knowing how fast I read. I watched their faces as they calculated how much they’d be left out of pocket.  

That at least was a more interesting enterprise than the Multiple Sclerosis Walkathon around the school. I finished the course early, got bored, sat in the grass, then found some catheads to put in the path of stragglers. Someone dobbed me in, so I was made to stand in the circle of shame at lunchtime to be interrogated by Mrs Woodley.

Fortunately I am now an adult and can do adult readathons which don’t involve catheads or burnt grass or heat rashes. I do however, still want some cash.

This is for an initiative organised by author Jane Rawson to raise money for the Indigenous Literacy Foundation. The ILF, founded by Suzy Wilson (who runs Riverbend Books in Brisbane), aims to address literacy levels in remote communities.

Many Indigenous kids, particularly in remote communities, cannot get their hands on books. Here are some stats from the Indigenous Literacy Foundation:

·      Indigenous homes, particularly those in remote communities, have fewer books, computers and other educational resources than non-Indigenous homes.

·      The gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students emerges early. Non-Indigenous students far out-perform Indigenous students in benchmark tests for reading, writing and numeracy in Year 3 and Year 5.

·      By the age of 15, more than one-third of Australia’s Indigenous students ‘do not have the adequate skills and knowledge in reading literacy to meet real-life challenges and may well be disadvantaged in their lives beyond school’.

·      In the Northern Territory, only one in five children living in very remote Indigenous communities can read at the accepted minimum standard.

The Indigenous Literacy Foundation gets books for these kids and helps them learn to read.

Books have nourished me all my life, particularly when I was younger & didn’t have the social skills necessary for interacting with people. It would be wonderful if more kids had access to the vivid worlds of literature; they certainly kept me from boredom & loneliness,

The Just Read challenge is on over June & July, and I’m using it to read the swathe of unread books on my shelves, including:

The Narrow Road to the Deep North, Richard Flanagan

The Island Within, Richard Nelson

Z: a novel of Zelda Fitzgerald, Therese Anne Fowler

The Night Guest, Fiona McFarlane

Not that Kind of Girl Lena Dunham

The Sixth Extinction, Elizabeth Kolbert

Georgiana Molloy, Bernice Barry

As well as the 50 billion literary journals lying in piles around my flat.

If you want to throw money at me for reading (please do!), here’s my fundraising page. At least this way you can pay a flat rate, and avoid my rellies’ nervousness as their hands hovered over their purses.