Ruth lives alone in an isolated beachside house she and her late husband, Harold, had bought for their retirement. Her two sons are both a long-distance phone call away, one in New Zealand the other in Hong Kong. Near enough to maintain an appropriate level of interest and care.
One night Ruth awakens to the presence of a tiger in her house, “a vibrancy of breath that suggested enormity and intent.” The unsettling orange presence that leaves her aware of how vulnerable her solicitude makes her but also thrilled at the potential danger.
At the same time a stranger arrives at her door. Frida Young is a large woman whose hair colour changes with her moods. She has been assigned to Ruth by the Government to provide her with daily assistance around the home in what her son Jeffrey believes is a “good, actually good use of tax-payers’ money”.
Ruth settles comfortably into the relationship with Frida who takes care of everything in her life and revives reassuring memories of her early life growing up in Fiji. Her son’s long-distance fears about how Ruth can cope on her own dissipate in the face of Frida’s cheerful competence.
But as Ruth gradually discovers, things aren’t going so well for Frida. Her brother George, with whom she co-owns some family property, is a fool with money. Once the reasonably successful owner of two taxi licenses, he is now just a driver and Ruth occasionally sees the shadowy shape of his orange cab as he drops off and picks up Frida. It was George, who was so helpful in arranging the sale of the car Ruth no longer feels confident to drive. So Ruth doesn’t hesitate in looking for ways she can help. She has become increasingly reliant on Frida and doesn’t want to lose her. After all, there is always the danger that the tiger could return. What would she do then?
The Night Guest is a cleverly constructed novel with sinewy plot twists that sooth and then startle. McFarlane lets the tension ebb and flow and fills the narrative with beautiful phrases so well, it is hard to believe that this is her first novel. It is both an unnerving psychological thriller and a sometimes-agonizing reflection on aging, solitude and memory.
“But the lounge room, when Ruth entered it, did look disheveled. An armchair stood in closer than usual proximity to a lamp. One corner of the rug lay folded back. And were the feline hairs she found rubbed into the rug more bristly than usual, more orange? The light fell innocently through the lace curtains. Everything was calm, but each piece of furniture seemed unmoored in the flat, insipid light, as if it had been stranded in its insistence on the ordinary. Ruth had the feeling that her whole house was lying to her. How could it smell of a jungle in the night and now so strongly, so freshly, of eucalyptus? But that was Frida, mopping the floors. Ruth thought, She’s hiding the evidence, whether she knows it or not. Does she know it?
‘Frida!’ she called.