288pp, hardback, £14.99
Reviewed by Zoë Fairbairns
You’re in your eighties, living alone in a large, isolated house by the sea. Your husband, whom you loved, is dead. Your adult children keep in touch by phone. You’re fine really – apart from occasional memory lapses. Apart from the tiger which prowls around your house at night.
You haven’t actually seen the tiger, a species which is not native to your part of the world (New South Wales, Australia) – but you know it is there, from the noises it makes as it rubs against your furniture, from the smells it emits, from the fear it arouses.
This is the predicament of Ruth in Fiona McFarlane’s eerie end-of-life novel The Night Guest. It’s the lady and the tiger – or, to be more precise, a tiger and two ladies. Ruth has a home help, the competent and apparently-caring Frida, who prepares Ruth’s food, protects her from the tiger, keeps the house clean, and ever so gently takes over the management of Ruth’s finances. Frida’s origins are shrouded in mystery – is she really, as she claims, a government employee? Is she secretly financed by Ruth’s sons, who are genuinely concerned about their mother and who have sent Frida as a carer and a spy? Or is Frida something more sinister, malignant, criminal, supernatural, or all of the above?
Read this disturbing and powerful magical-realist thriller and find out. It’s edge-of-the-rocking-chair stuff, as we follow events through the point of view of a woman who on her good days is alert, assertive, kind, canny and sexy. On less good days, she is confused and ill, perhaps hallucinating, perhaps living beyond the grave. Ruth doesn’t want to leave her beautiful home for the confines of some protective institution for the elderly – who would? But who is to protect her from the tiger, who is to protect her from her protectors?
Anyway, I must stop. It’s late at night, I’m alone in the house, and I think I just heard a noise from downstairs...