The Night Guest – Fiona McFarlane

The Night Guest opens with Ruth Field, 75, widower, hearing an intruder in her house. But this is not the sort of intruder you might expect in the depths of the night:

Something large was rubbing against Ruth’s couch and television and, she suspected, the wheat-coloured recliner disguised as a wingback chair. Other sounds followed: the panting and breathing of a large animal; a vibrancy of breath that suggested enormity and intent; definite mammalian noises, definitely feline…an odd strangled yowl…followed by louder sniffing that confirmed the intruder as a tiger.

Ruth telephones her eldest son Jeremy to tell him. He gives the impression of being supportive and helpful but ultimately he’s dismissive of his mother and she’s aware of his attitude. She notes that on his last visit she realised she’d reached the age where her son was worried about her.

‘You’re telling me there’s a what, there’s a tiger in your house?’

Ruth said nothing. She wasn’t telling him there was a tiger in her house; she was telling him she could hear one. That distinction seemed important…

The following morning, a woman who identifies herself as Frida Young arrives at Ruth’s door. She has, she says, been sent by the government to care for Ruth. Ruth decides that Frida’s Fijian, an idea that comforts her as it reminds her of her childhood, part of which was spent in Fiji and involved her first taste of love.

Frida arrives each day with a bag of oranges – free from someone her brother knows – and a different hair style; ‘”It’s my hobby”, she said.’ Before long, she’s increasing her time at Ruth’s from an hour to three, with an extra half hour for lunch and then she’s suggesting Ruth sell her car, using Frida’s brother George’s taxi instead.

She also offered to take over Ruth’s shopping, to buy stamps and mail letters, to pay bills, and to arrange house calls from the doctor if necessary.

As Frida further integrates herself into Ruth’s life, Ruth reacquaints herself with Richard Porter, the man she met and fell in love with in Fiji as a teenager. There are also further visits from the tiger.

Although I was fairly certain I’d worked out where the Frida storyline was heading early on in the novel, it’s deftly handled by McFarlane and there are some menacing twists along the way. The ease with which Frida places herself in Ruth’s home, without question from her sons, the locals or Richard is very sinister and leaves us wondering about the vulnerable members of society that we know.

My issue with the book came with the final chapter – don’t worry, there’ll be no spoilers here – which seemed as if it’s been included to ensure that the outcome of the story is clear. Some readers will like this, I’ve no doubt, but for me, it took away some of the power of McFarlane’s narrative. There was enough there for me to draw my own conclusions as to what had happened and who was responsible and I like to end a book with questions to discuss with other readers. This is a shame but thankfully isn’t enough to ruin what I thought was a good read.

The Night Guest is a menacing exploration of the way we treat the eldest and most vulnerable members of our society, enclosed within a stunning cover.

Thanks to Sceptre for the review copy.