Fiona McFarlane - The Night Guest (3 stars)

A combination of suspenseful whodunit and tender portrait of an ageing relative

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Fiona McFarlane - The Night Guest

(Sceptre)

As widower Ruth hears the padding footsteps of a tiger prowling her living room at night, the reader is being wrong-footed. The opening pages of this début novel from Sydney’s Fiona McFarlane are full of magical realist promise; the imagined jungle creature is Ruth’s brain rebelling, craving something exotic to snap her out of her boredom and loneliness.

In fact, McFarlane’s fantasy device shies back into the shadows for most of the book, like Ruth’s tiger melting away as the sun comes up. Instead, The Night Guest is a combination of suspenseful whodunit and tender portrait of an ageing relative.

Long empty-nested by her sons, grandmother Ruth is in the early stages of dementia, and has taken to making decisions by arbitrary things. ‘If she had dinner ready in time for the six o’clock news, both her sons would be home for Christmas.’ The arrival of an uninvited home-help, then an octogenarian romance, awaken long-assumed dead feelings in Ruth, in a touching, and often beautifully observed study of old age. But like Ruth’s afternoons, there’s a nagging yearning here for some odd or surreal element to break from the reality.

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