I think 2014 might be the year of ‘grey fiction’. I don’t mean in a fifty shades of grey way though, I do think that we are going to witness a lot more novels about, or narrated by, the older character and two of them are my favourite books of the year by far and both of them are debut novels. First up is The Night Guest by Fiona McFarlane which I think is one of the most intensely gripping, worrying and moving novels I have had the pleasure of reading in quite some time, and one which I think will linger hauntingly for the rest of my reading year to come.
Ruth is a widow who has been living by herself on the coast round from Sydney and for a little while and been coping quite well thank you very much. However on and off in the night she has felt pretty sure that there is a tiger who is roaming around her house. She doesn’t know where this tiger comes from or goes to after it visits her and yet while she doesn’t think it wants to harm or eat her its presence is unnerving to say the least. Especially when she wakes up and wonders if it was ever really there at all, is she loosing her marbles?
Just as she and her two sons, who both live distances away, are beginning to worry luck intervenes as a young burly and rather bossy woman, Frida, turns up on the door one day announcing that she has been sent by the government and is Ruth’s new home help, initially just staying for an hour or so a day to help all she can. Help indeed she does, she may be bossy and have an edge but Frida cleans thoroughly, helps with bills and even helps Ruth look up and old flame from her youth back in Fiji. Yet as we read on and Ruth continues to tell her narrative a sense of menace builds around Frida and we initially have to work out if Frida is not who she says she is, or is Ruth indeed imagining or confusing things as her mind has started to wander more and more.
I won’t say anything else for fear of giving the plot away because part of what the book is all about, and indeed built up on, is the relationship between Ruth and Frida as it twists and turns with the books progression. In this sense I have to say it was one of the most compelling novels, this would fall into ‘literary thriller’ territory, that I have read in quite some time – so much so I read it in two sittings, didn’t speak to anyone for a whole Sunday and completely forgot to keep any notes for quotes and points to discuss, and much to discuss there is in The Night Guest.
As I mentioned the twists and turns are only one strand of the book. The Night Guest is also very much a book about old age, loneliness, regret and second chances. In terms of old age, I think anyone who reads this book will be keeping a much closer eye on the older people they love and those people around that person. More importantly it looks at the subject of old age unflinchingly, through Ruth we are given an insight into how it feels to be lonely and unable to see or get to those you love as much as you would like, how it feels to be isolated yet lacking in true independence when you aren’t able to do everything for yourself. It isn’t all bad, the time she gets to think and contemplate the sea and whales is delightful, as are the thoughts of what it might be like to shock some young person by saying ‘fuck’ or ‘bitch’ which adds to many of the books darkly funny moments.
I loved how Ruth looked back fondly at her marriage to Harry, living in Sydney and having the boys and yet also longed for the days when she was the daughter of missionaries in Fiji and completely in love with a doctor called Richard. The tale of her contacting and meeting Richard again is a lovely one amongst the darkness and I thought, slight spoiler here but it is so wonderfully done I can’t not mention it, a brilliant and hopeful portrayal of love, lust and even sex once your over seventy, all done tastefully and movingly.
Of course the atmosphere of menace is still present even in these more tranquil moments of McFarlane’s prose, and as the book goes on the menace intensifies yet the book never strays into a sense of farce or the unbelievable. Actually, it is probably the fact that The Night Guest is so realistic and so possible that it makes it all the more effective and chillingly thrilling. I think McFarlane has written a marvellous book, one which I highly recommend to you all as it is definitely one of my reads of the year and as I mentioned, even a month later, haunts me still. Oh, and if you needed any more convincing it is also an utterly beautiful object in itself, you really should judge this book by its covers.
Who else has read The Night Guest and what did you make of it? I have seen it has been long-listed for this year’s Stella Prize in Australia (along with the brilliant All The Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld and Burial Rites by Hannah Kent, so maybe I should read the whole list if they are this good?) and if it misses out on a long-listing for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction on Friday I will be rather surprised.