A few days ago we asked Fiona McFarlane, author of The Night Guest, what she hoped people take away with them after reading her work.
I hope people are haunted by the story they’ve just read; that they’re left thinking about trust, dependence, aging, and the ways the past can colonise the present.
I have never read an author who so succinctly summarised my own feelings upon reading their work. For 300 pages I was an unknowing passenger, unaware every emotion stirring inside me was meticulously planned. When I finished the novel I was taken by her skill. Now I’m mesmerised by it.
The Night Guest is the story of Ruth, a recent widower living on the edges of a coastal town. She lives a comfortable yet ultimately unremarkable life, largely defined by her childhood in Fiji with her missionary parents and a lost love from those days.
Ruth’s years begin to catch up with her. Her days fall into one another and she is constantly distracted by thoughts of the past. After she calls her sons one night to tell them she hears a tiger, her sons feel she has become incapable of looking after herself. One day a woman, Frida, turns up at her door. Frida says she is a nurse sent by the government to look after Ruth and as Ruth begrudgingly accepts and the weeks pass, her reliance on Frida begins to grow as her own physical and mental state slowly begins to fall away. But as Frida’s role in Ruth’s life grows, we are left to wonder just what Frida’s true intentions are as Ruth’s mind is increasingly more in the past than the present.
The most brilliant thing about The Night Guest is that I slowly felt as though I had uncovered a hidden subtext, one even the author didn’t realise. I could see tiny cracks in the story, sure only I knew the damage these could ultimately do to the foundations.
But I was wrong. McFarlane knew. She put them there after all.
Haunting is the perfect word to describe it. I’ve spent more time thinking about the book than I did reading it. My own parents are in their seventies, and while a long way from the deterioration Ruth begins to experience, for them a clock ticks with every forgotten name, every misplaced key, and every tired word.
And that’s why I thought I had unlocked a world within the novel that nobody knew existed. That my emotions, my experiences had shaped the story a particular way.
But I was wrong. The Night Guest deals in something we are all slaves to, time. And while McFarlane pulls the most stirring emotional strings with ease, she tells a poignant, unsettlingly beautiful story that still keeps me up at night.
There was another thing McFarlane said in the interview. She said: A lot of people have told me they call their mothers more often after reading my book.
I called my mother the minute I finished the book, and we talked for hours.
Andrew Cattanach is a regular contributor to The Booktopia Blog and was shortlisted for The Age Short Story Prize. He enjoys reading, writing and sleeping though finds it difficult to do them all at once.
You can follow his ramblings on twitter at @andrew__cat