‘An unsettling book’ – The Night Guest by Fiona McFarlane

tngfmThis is an unsettling book. It’s told from the perspective of an ageing widow, Ruth, left alone in her big house on the beach in a fairly isolated location. The opening reveals a little about her state of mind – that she thinks there’s a tiger in her house at night. Otherwise, it’s a typical story that many people live out every day; her sons live abroad but she’s in regular contact with them. She spends a lot of time thinking about the past, particularly her childhood in Fiji where she grew up as the daughter of the local missionary sent from England to manage the locals.

There really doesn’t seem to be any real cause for concern.

Frida turns up on her doorstep one day, lugging a suitcase filled with cleaning materials. She says she has been sent by the government to care for her, an hour every day. Ruth’s son speaks to Frida too. She sends him forms and information.

Everyone seems happy with the arrangement.

Friday increases her hours to three or four a day to help Ruth manage the house. She cooks for Ruth too.

The tension builds up. Frida pushes Ruth, gently at first but increases with time to do the things Frida thinks Ruth should do. Like sell her late husband’s car. And invite a visitor to stay with her.

Ruth’s frailty is obvious, as is her need for support, both emotionally and physically. Her small life is dominated by Frida’s loud, happy personality, and it’s so easy to pass the big decisions onto someone else.

There is a helluva twist in the story that I won’t spoil for you, but it’s creepy and horrible. It’ll play on your mind and make you want to hug all the elderly people in your life. Ring them. Go and visit them.

McFarlane has a mastery of creating tension and letting the suspense build in a way that it niggles. Something isn’t right in this story, in this relationship. It pulls at you and worries until you read on and get to end. She has great control over the story and her characters.

As the story is told through Ruth’s character, we see the clash between memories and the real world. How scary things are for her. How pleasurable the small things in life are and should be.

And how easy all that can be taken away.

Any Cop?: This doesn’t feel like a debut novel, but one of author in control of her work. I look forward to reading more of McFarlane’s novels in the future.

Claire Snook


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