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The Night Guest, by Fiona McFarlane, Sceptre, RRP£14.99/Faber $26, 288 pages
Fiona McFarlane’s debut novel is a conundrum for the reviewer – a book with a plot which, when summarised, suggests little of its charm, wit, and suspenseful energy. The Night Guest is the story of a solitary 75-year-old widow, Ruth, who lives in an isolated house on the New South Wales coast until the arrival of a woman named Frida, who claims to be a home help.
We meet Ruth as she is gradually losing her critical faculties, increasingly finding herself the inhabitant of a world of childhood memories and senile fantasies. If it sounds a little ruminative, don’t be put off: this is a witty, poetic psychological thriller in which the reader becomes so firmly embedded in Ruth’s mind that one cannot help but sympathise with her confusion.
Frida – a character whom Ruth, a daughter of missionary parents in Fiji, assumes is Fijian, but about whom little is really known – provides a new life force. Loud and bustling, she brings bath rails and oranges and a sense of routine into Ruth’s sandy house, and also a welcome unpredictability; like her mood, Frida’s hair changes daily, from blond to black to “brittle French rolls”. Frida gives Ruth permission to relax into old age, to enjoy it and to absolve herself of responsibility; as a result, Ruth sells her car; hangs up the phone on her concerned but controlling son; and invites a childhood sweetheart to visit her. (The ensuing episode, which includes an utterly believable, tender sex scene between a woman of 75 and a man of 80, is one of the most delightful passages in the book.)
The question of Frida’s integrity, or lack of it, gives the book its narrative edge; but its joy comes from McFarlane’s language, which perfectly captures Ruth’s old-fashioned, gently rebellious spirit, and the almost enjoyable onset of vagueness. (She is soothed by the sea “in an indefinable way, just as she imagined a plant might be by Mozart.”)
This is a very moving description of old age – a portrait of a woman and mother who has rarely felt herself to be needed, yet can now only remember “the sense of urgency she felt lent significance to the most trivial things”, such as the layout of her baby son’s nursery: “She could still recall, for example, the exact order to the books on the shelf beside Phillip’s crib. His laboured breathing reminded her of a toy train ascending a mountain; she thought of it now as she washed herself in the shower, balancing on the plastic stool.”