Tag Archives: The Stella Prize

The Night Guest – Fiona McFarlane

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.

Sceptre Books, hardback, 2014, fiction, 276 pages, kindly sent by the publishers

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.

The Night Guest Uncovered

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.

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Filed under Books of 2014, Fiona McFarlane, Review, Sceptre Publishing

Mateship with Birds – Carrie Tiffany

So as it is, or probably with the time difference and the fact I have ended up working six hours from home today (on a Sunday and everything), Australia Day today I thought it would be nice to get a review of some Australian literature up on Savidge Reads. I am often telling myself I must read more Australian fiction as I like it whenever I do and so it seems an appropriate nudge. After much mulling and debate I settled on Mateship with Birds by Carrie Tiffany, which won the inaugural Stella Prize in 2013 and which I have had waiting on the shelves for too long. Far too long as it turned out as I was left rather astounded by this book.

9780330544467

Picador Books, 2013, paperback, 224 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

On the outskirts of a town somewhere in Australia in the early 1950’s we join two neighbours. Harry owns a dairy farm and spends his days between milking his herd and watching the local wildlife, mainly a family of kookaburra’s, and looking over his past seemingly happy with and yet questioning his lot in life. Betty rents the house next door with her two children Michael and Little Hazel, often wondering what has become of her life and often wondering about Harry. We follow these two characters, Betty’s children, and their weird neighbour Mues over what I thought was a season – though it could be much longer or indeed shorter as Mateship with Birds has a sense of nothing and everything happening all at once, all in the grubby wilds of the countryside.

Dairy pastures are difficult to establish in gullies where there is seepage and drainage. They drift like continents; their hides are maps of uncharted countries. Keep the herd on dry ground through the winter. Sunlight shines ginger through their ears. Plants shelterbelts to reduce wind speed. Elastic ropes of snot hang from their nostrils; their hocks are stuck with shit.

There is much to love in Mateship with Birds but what stood out for me was the depiction of two people who are intensely lonely. No matter how many cows Harry has to milk, inseminate and calf or how much interest he takes in the birdlife he is a man who has been left by his wife and left with a huge chasm he doesn’t know what to do with. Betty may have her day job caring in nursing home and two school children/early teenagers to look after yet her life is spent pretty much in an internal monologue, and one that is filled with disappointment and heartache, she knows people talk about her in the town and avoids it, and mirrors, all she can.

Betty tries not to look at her reflection in the co-op window. She glances. There’s nobody about. She stands in front of the glass, pulls her stomach in and smiles. The puffy flesh of her cheeks rises up around her eyes and she is brought up sharp by the sight of herself so doughy, so exposed, like when her hair has just been cut and set and there is too much of herself on display. This is how she feels most of the time now; always blowsy, always overstuffed.

Harry and Betty have befriended each other out of mutual loneliness and mutual interest, there is an underlying tension between them which they never talk about. Both headed for middle age they have no one else and so Harry regularly visits for Sunday dinner or to help out and has indeed taken Michael under his wing on the farm and in the ways of being a man, which leads to Harry writing to Michael about how life was for him as a teenager and pass on all his, in unflinching detail, experience with women and sex. Let’s say we soon learn he might not be the best man to pass advice onto.

Writing is actually a big theme in the book, which makes sense when you have so many characters with little to do and so much going on in their heads. Harry writes the letters to Michael, he also keeps a note of the lives of the kookaburra family that nest nearby, written in the most gorgeous verse it is pure poetry. Keeping with nature, another major theme of the book, Little Hazel keeps her nature diary, and her mother a diary of the children’s illnesses year by year. Each of these forms of writing gives another insight into all the characters and often adds a real sense of humour to what could have possibly become a depressing book though never does.

1951/52
Michael: Concussion from bicycle accident, infected toe from spider bite (?), kicked by cow, v. bad cough, pecked by gander, eye infection, warts on feet, skewered with fork, burnt foot, constipation, infected splinter, nits.
Little Hazel: Tummy upset, headaches, chilblains, pecked by gander, warts, cough, scratched by cat, diarrhoea, nits.

I mentioned the theme of sex previously and indeed it is one of the main themes of the book. Okay, let us be frank there is A LOT of sex in Mateship with Birds, though really any surprise about that should be left at the door when ‘mateship’ is in the title yet it may surprise some as every few pages or so one of the characters either masturbates, inseminates or ejaculates at some point – or thinks about doing it. This will not be for all readers, as it is rather graphic, and I know some readers went completely off the book for it. Yet Mateship with Birds is a very animalistic and quite grubby (in a muddy sense initially) book anyway so I personally thought it worked really well and made sense often working as a metaphor for what else was going on in the book or a way of unleashing internal mental frustrations as well as the physical ones. Plus you also have a group of characters who have very little else going on, throw in that and the heat and it’s all going to get a bit heightened.

When the air is dry and thin
(early February)
you can hear the river birds to the north.
I thought at first
they were an echo,
but when you get your ear in
it’s clear
that each family sings its own song.

I do hope the sex factor doesn’t put people off this books though as really what Mateship with Birds is all about is loneliness, wanting to belong and looking at the question of what family is. I think Carrie Tiffany excels as she manages to create a novel that reminds us we aren’t so different from the birds and animals around us we like to think, we are all beasts and we function the way nature intended us to.

I do love an ‘earthy’ book and a grubby countryside setting – as I think there can be much darker things going on behind those countryside curtains, I also love a book with fully formed and rather dysfunctional characters whose lives you get thrown into. All of these loves are ticked in Mateship with Birds and more. It is wonderfully written and I highly recommend you give it a whirl; sex, warts and all!

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Filed under Books of 2014, Carrie Tiffany, Picador Books, Review