Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Fiona McFarlane: The Night Guest

This review is part of the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014

Fiona McFarlane's first novel The Night Guest has been long-listed for the Miles Franklin, Australia's premier literary award. My local library has it in the Crime section, which is a bit like putting Dostoyevsky there. Some bookshops had a similar issue about whether to put Peter Temple's Truth, the 2010 Winner, under

Nevertheless, its climax and conclusion both quicken the pulse with elements of a classic thriller. This is despite their seeming inevitability.

We know from the opening lines (and the cover) that this is not going to be the usual trip:
Ruth woke at four in the morning and her blurry brain said, 'Tiger.' That was natural; she was dreaming. But there were nosies in the house, and as she woke she heard them.
Another tiger comes in human form but by taxi. Frida takes on the role of the seventy-five year-old's carer. It's the beginning of the novel's central relationship that swings between affection and suspicion, kindness and exploitation. With time Ruth comes to regard Frida as her defender but also as a threat.

Ruth's has been alone since her husband Harry died five years earlier. Her sons, Jeffrey and Phillip, show a passing interest in her welfare from afar. Like many elderly people, Ruth is increasingly trapped in her home both literally and figuratively. She is also trapped in her memories. Even the visit of Richard, a romantic blast from her youth in Fiji, is more about the past than her shaky future.

Enough potential spoilers for now.

Fiona's writing has clarity and fluency, not always common in contemporary fiction despite the pared prose. It is easy to be drawn in as its pace increases in the second half. Whilst the final elements of the Ruth's story are not unexpected, Fiona handles them sensitively and without melodrama.

A very well executed debut that deserves a prize or two.

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