The Night Guest is one of those mysterious, sly novels that throws you off balance and causes you to second guess the author all the way through. You know from the first pages that our main character Ruth is someone out of the ordinary. As we learn more about her, it becomes less clear what is real and what is fantasy.
Ruth is a 75-year-old widow, mother of two grown sons, living alone at a beachside house in Australia. When we first meet her, she has been awakened by a sound in the house which she is certain is a tiger. The next morning, a government carer named Frida Young unexpectedly arrives on Ruth’s doorstep to help her for a few hours each day. While Ruth is willing to accept Frida’s help, and her sons are pleased that someone is looking after mum since they are too far away and too busy to check in on her, there is something a bit off, perhaps even sinister about Frida. Ruth experiences occasional qualms over her presence, but what we learn throughout the novel is that Ruth is experiencing the onset of dementia. How much of her concern is genuine and how much is a figment of her imagination? And what about that tiger? It seems easy enough to write that off as a bad dream or a sign of dementia, but what if it’s something real?
The Night Guest is, on one hand, a story about growing old, losing your faculties and independence, and needing to rely on strangers for help. It was especially poignant for me because we, like many, are dealing with this in our family right now. Ruth’s dementia becomes an opportunity for her to revert to her past, to remember her youth and first love in Fiji. Ruth’s parents were medical professionals and missionaries there and Ruth did not move to Australia until she was 19 or so. McFarlane reveals Ruth’s dementia through her recollections and telling of stories about her time on Fiji, stories whose details change and become muddled as the disease progresses.
But it’s that tiger that really fascinates me. The tiger appears at the very beginning of the story and again towards the end. Ruth’s reaction to the thought of a tiger in her home is not what you might expect. Rather than fear, she experiences something more like exuberance. “… there was another sensation, a new one, to which she attended with greater care: a sense of extravagant consequence. Something important, Ruth felt, was happening to her, and she couldn’t be sure what it was: the tiger, or the feeling of importance…. She felt something coming to meet her — something large, and not a real thing, of course, she wasn’t that far gone — but a shape, or anyway a temperature.” She goes on to think, “For some time now she had hoped that her end might be as extraordinary as her beginning.” I can tell you that the end of the novel is rather extraordinary and would be a topic of some discussion in a book group.
I enjoyed this novel quite a bit. This progress of the dementia plus our concerns about Frida make for a suspenseful and tense tale. And that cover art is pretty cool, too.