The unreliable narrator is a staple of recent psychological thrillers, from Gillian Flynn to S.J. Watson to Tana French. In these novels characters are untrustworthy because they are psychopaths, because they have amnesia, or because they are recovering from PTSD, respectively. Fiona McFarlane puts a distinctive and subtle twist on this trend, with results that are no less gripping. Her main character is a seventy-five-year-old woman, widowed, living alone in a remote beach town in Australia. She is plagued by nothing more innocuous than old age.
Ruth grew up in Fiji, the daughter of a missionary couple. She moved to Sydney as a young woman, where she married, raised two sons, and then retired with her husband, Harry, to a house on a windswept beach on the western coast of the country. When Harry dies of a heart attack on his daily walk to the mailbox Ruth is left alone in the house for several years—one son now lives in New Zealand, one is in Hong Kong —and begins to have strange thoughts in the night. She believes she can hear a tiger moving through the rooms of her house. She can hear “the panting and breathing of a large animal; a vibrancy of breath that suggested enormity and intent.”
With the arrival of these phantasms comes a much more solid figure; a woman named Frida, who shows up at the house one morning dragging an enormous suitcase across the sand dunes, looking “as if she had been blown in from the sea.” Frida is a colossal woman, in girth and stature, and she becomes the dark star at the center of this disconcerting debut. Claiming to be a government carer assigned to look after Ruth (“‘You were on our waiting list and a spot opened up’”) Frida comes for a few hours each day to do general housekeeping, cook lunch, and check on Ruth. By turns bossy, blustery, and self-deprecating, Frida insinuates herself into every aspect of the place. As McFarlane writes: “The house took to Frida; it opened up. Ruth sat in her chair and watched it happen. She saw the bookcases breathe easier as Frida dusted and rearranged them; she saw the study expel its years’ worth of Harry-hoarded paperwork. She had never seen such perfect oranges as the ones Frida brought in her little string bag.” Eventually Frida begins taking care of Ruth’s banking and bill-paying, handling all of the incoming and outgoing mail, and monitoring Ruth’s phone calls.
The skillfulness of the counterpoint McFarlane sets up between these two women is that even though the reader suspects something ominously awry about Frida’s intentions, Ruth’s grasp on reality is so tenuous that her judgment cannot be trusted. When Ruth’s houseguest—an old flame from her childhood in Fiji, who comes for a visit—comments on how nice it is for Ruth to have live-in help, the reader feels as discombobulated as Ruth, to not have noticed that Frida has moved in to one of the boys’ old bedrooms. “In Phillip’s room, Frida lived among her things. The room wasn’t cluttered or in any way untidy, but it was distinctly inhabited: the furniture had been rearranged, unfamiliar postcards were stuck to the otherwise denuded walls, and her suitcase was tucked neatly on top of the wardrobe.”
When Ruth confronts Frida about this, Frida claims that she and Ruth discussed all this weeks ago, and that Ruth is embarrassing herself by not remembering it. Like a clockmaker examining a machine’s internal mechanisms McFarlane shows Ruth picking apart her own thoughts in an attempt to see where the gears aren’t interlocking: “[Frida’s] obstinacy had a mineral quality. Ruth felt she could chip away at it with a sharp tool and reveal nothing more than the uniformity of its composition. But her own certainty that Frida was lying had a similar brilliance. Her mind felt sifted and clear; her clear and prismatic mind turned and turned over the fact that Frida was lying.”
Although she distrusts Frida Ruth becomes cowed by her, to the point where she can’t help confessing her fears about the tiger’s nighttime visits. Shortly after this Ruth is woken one night by the sound of Frida screaming, and running into Ruth’s bedroom with three bloody gashes on her arm, claiming that she too has seen the tiger, and been mauled by it. A plan must be put into place immediately, Frida insists: to trap the tiger and kill it. But the plan will present as many dangers for Ruth as it does for the possibly imaginary animal.
Is reality something which exists independent of us in the world, or that which we create in the prisms of our minds? The Night Guest is a beautifully textured novel built around this basic philosophical question. It is a book which reads like a psychological thriller but in the end transcends that category to be a portrait of the isolation, but also the sense of revelation that can accompany old age. When Ruth sees the tiger in her house at night it gives her a feeling “of something vital—not of youth, exactly, but of the urgency of youth—and she was reluctant to give it up. For some time now she had hoped that her end might be as extraordinary as her beginning.” It will give nothing away to say that McFarlane’s sly and stealthy novel shows Ruth’s wish granted.