OCTOBER 18, 2013
IN FIONA McFARLANE’S excellent first novel, The Night Guest, Ruth Field is a retired widow living up the coast from Sydney, enjoying “the gentle, bewildering expanse of the day, the filling of all those more-or-less hours.” A former elocution teacher who delights in secret swearing — she says “fuck” in “a mild, girlish way” — Ruth is “capable of watching the sea all day.” At night, she wakes to a house “thick … with a strange hothouse heat” and the “unusual noise of birds and insects, as if it were summer outside.” Sometimes, there’s a “whine or two that might have been a tiger.” Ruth “knew there couldn’t be a tiger; but she wasn’t sure it was a dream.” There’s “the panting and breathing of a large animal; a vibrancy of breath that suggested enormity and intent; definite mammalian noises, definitely feline, as if her cats had grown in size and were sniffing for food with enormous noses.”
Ruth has a new carer, Frida — a government nurse who arrives unannounced, “looking as if she had been blown in from the sea.” Frida bosses Ruth about for a few hours each day and tries to scrub away the scent of sand and brine, but Ruth “look[s] forward to the disruption,” to the laugh that “ris[es] from [Frida’s] capacious chest” and “spread[s], like wings.” As Frida “dust[s] and rearrange[s],” Ruth remembers her teenage life in Fiji, where “flowers bloomed in useless profusion, and there was too much of everything: sun, and green, and love.” She misses her late lawyer husband, Harry, and the sons who left for Hong Kong and New Zealand. And she thinks about Richard, her thwarted first love, a doctor who “arrived during a rainstorm” to stay with her missionary parents.
As the The Night Guest begins, it has everything an accomplished debut should: convincing characters; a pleasant narrative pace; beautiful, idiosyncratic prose that lets you almost smell the salt of the waves. Then, about halfway through the book, the path you’re following leads up and over a cliff. And you discover that this is much more than your standard good first novel.
Ruth’s hair starts to itch. It keeps itching. It’s the jungle. No. The heat. No. She’s forgotten to wash it for weeks. And Frida, who goes home every night, is actually living in the house.
“What are you doing in here?” asked Ruth, holding tightly to the doorknob.
“What does it look like I’m doing?” said Frida. “Relaxing at the end of a long day.”
“But why are you here? […] I thought you were leaving.”
“You assumed I was leaving, obviously. Who knows why.”
“And why I wouldn’t I assume you were leaving? It’s not as if you live here.”
“Oh, dear.” Frida lifted her feet from the towel […] “[R]emember, we talked about George, all my trouble with George? And you said I could stay as long as I needed to. So here I am.” […]
“That isn’t true, Frida, what you’re saying to me now, it’s not true. I’d remember.” Ruth was certain; but there was a feeling of unraveling, all the same; an unwound thread. She did recognize the part about trouble with George.
“You know your memory’s not what it used to be.”
“I do not know that.”
The narrative voice, which presents itself as objective, actually follows Ruth’s perspective much more closely than the reader first realizes. Playing with this distance, McFarlane destabilizes and re-establishes the narrative’s authority to give a sense of confusion without rendering it wholly untrustworthy. By revising and subverting the way we perceive book’s world, she recreates in the reader something of Ruth’s bewildering experience as her mind becomes “sticky.”
These ambiguities are primarily embodied by Frida and the tiger. Is Frida really a nurse sent by the government? (Her paperwork checks out.) Why is she moody when Ruth tells her about growing up in a hospital with nurses? (Well, Frida can be moody.) Why is she asking about Ruth’s income? (She needs to know. For the government.) Why does she want to sell Ruth’s car, to take over Ruth’s banking?
Ruth’s reluctant suspicions aren’t subject to Miss Marpleish investigation: in the main, they sit under the novel’s skin. When they surface, Ruth’s no-nonsense rationalizations prompt our acceptance of her conclusion: Frida should have the benefit of the doubt. Even the tiger’s vital presence retreats into ambiguity after Ruth calmly assesses its viability: the tiger has “a dream’s diminishing character,” it’s “ridiculous.” But then, Ruth can smell the fur and plant stink, and so can we.
When Ruth discovers Frida living in the house, though, the ambiguities are foregrounded. There’s a jolt, a literary carpet yanked from under us. Either our supposedly reliable protagonist has forgotten a core plot event, or Frida is a crook and all Ruth’s conclusions about her are wrong. Whichever way, this disrupts everything the reader has accepted for chapters — the objectivity of the narrative, the benefit of the doubt for Frida — and creates a sensation of having lurched down three steps when you were expecting one. That Frida might be gaslighting — manipulating events to create Ruth’s sense of mental deterioration — means the reader can’t settle back and conclude that Ruth’s mind is going. But neither can the reader conclude that Frida really is a gaslighter. Ruth’s perception and Frida’s version of events are, then, mutually destabilizing; and in playing them against each other, the reader feels something akin to Ruth’s interiority.
As it becomes clear that Ruth’s mind is deteriorating, McFarlane lets the narrative’s objectivity slip more obviously still, offering patches of hallucinatory, near stream-of-conscious text where Ruth’s sense of time and self flickers and shifts:
When she woke early the next morning, Ruth couldn’t remember falling asleep. More than this, she couldn’t remember her own body; it seemed to be missing […] She felt nothing […] Then there was a noise in the room, which she finally recognized as her own voice — she wasn’t sure what her voice was saying, but the existence of it, and its definite sound, returned sensation to her back and legs […] [S]he called out to the cats just to hear her voice again. “Kit! Kit!” she called. Her tongue was sticky in her mouth.
The novel is increasingly intercut with these episodes — Ruth swims in Frida’s clothes and feverishly cleans seashells, hides in flowers and goes to town; then she forgets where she is and why she’s there. Afterward, McFarlane snaps the narrative back to objectivity, back to lucidity. But during the events, she rushes the reader into Ruth’s dissociative mental processes: “She sat in her chair and watched a strange yellow haze pass over her eyes, as if a cloud, in crossing the sun, had been half burnt away by its light”; “The horizon felt higher than it ought to, so that the sea tilted dizzily down over the houses.”
The jungle and the “wet smell of […] tiger” become increasingly real, too. The reader has adjusted by now to see the tiger as a symptom of Ruth’s condition, but then Frida takes Ruth’s fear seriously when she confesses it. Frida stays up waiting for the beast, builds barbed-wire traps in the dunes, and staggers back in, breathless and bleeding, from a seeming altercation. Is there really a tiger, “moving with intemperate speed over the beach,” or is Frida manipulating Ruth? Maybe both?
As Ruth’s mind-state becomes permanently altered, the jungle, Ruth’s teenage memories of Fiji, and the tiger bleed into the last fragments of objective narrative. Then the prose dissolves into poetic riffs and stream-of-consciousness: past and present collapse and memories jumble, the dead are alive and the mind follows words and sounds down holes. And the tiger is, from one perspective, unquestionably real:
[T]here was the green slant of the sun in the frangipani. Ruth knew the size of that sun, and all of its properties: it was moving now down the length of her spine, burning some things away and dulling others. Its heat rolled, but subtly. She imagined her spine as a rough shaft, crusted and frayed, like underwater wood. She needed to find this shaft of wood where it splintered underwater; she seized hold of it with her hands; she tugged and the wood came free. Then Ruth came out of the sea. She tasted the salt on her lips to check that it was the sea; she had no memory of getting there. Also she was holding this piece of clammy wood, which was easy enough to throw out over the sand, so that it flew above the dunes and up into the long-distance wind. The wind made a high piping sound before leaving pinkish traces behind […] “Now,” she said to the tiger, but he only swung his lazy head to his other flank and licked it down. He defined his stripes. He fastened them with his tongue.
Sometimes a debut novel burns brighter than the rest, and offers up the promise of literary greatness. The Night Guest is one of these books. Through impeccable narrative control and deft manipulation of the reader’s experience, McFarlane opens Ruth’s mind to us, leads us into this foreign world, and makes us feel Ruth’s terrifying, infuriating disorientation. In doing so, she achieves that great object of fiction — empathy, compassion for a different human life. The Night Guest is an important and exciting first novel by an Australian writer of rare talent. Or, as we might say down under: “a bloody good read.”