August 2013

Arts & Letters

‘The Night Guest’ by Fiona McFarlane

By Catherine Ford
Hamish Hamilton; $29.99

Ruth Field’s retirement isn’t playing out smoothly. Widowed abruptly, deserted by her sons, she’s stranded in bathetic isolation on the south coast of New South Wales. Then, without warning, two hungry predators infiltrate her home. The first, a menacing male tiger, enters via the fissures of her dementia. The other, a solidly real and brazen “government carer” – a part-Maori woman called Frida Young – walks up Ruth’s driveway and lets herself in from there. 

Sydneysider Fiona McFarlane, a short story writer until now, has approached her debut novel with the plunge-pool immersions more common to the shorter form. Open up The Night Guest and you’re dropped in the deep – but not just into Ruth Field’s febrile, delusional state. The novel concerns itself with colonialism in Oceania and the aims of its missionary movement. That McFarlane manages to personalise the legacy of that complex history with an allegorical fiction is no small achievement.

Frida and the roaming tiger are irresistible, useful to Ruth. The housekeeper, a blunderbuss who’s practised at playing the servant, not only cooks and cleans like a demon, but seems to be a miraculous figment conjured from Ruth’s Fijian past. 

The daughter of self-deluding missionaries, who ministered in 1950s Suva, Ruth is still haunted by her parents and their naivety. Frida appears to offer her not only a redemption of that messy, embarrassing past, but a potential resolution to a failed island love affair. If only Frida were Fijian, and had no agenda of her own.

Such precocious control of subject and tone is rare in a first novel; that and McFarlane’s eye and her regard for idiosyncratic speech bring fine results. Ruth’s tiger, for example, is a “consequential visitor ... a one-off”. A pineapple plonked on a car seat sports a “spiked, green haircut”. An adult son, preparing a cup of tea, does so in “a slow slapstick”. Ruth and Frida’s struggle over their differences – and how they might set them aside to unite and trap the tiger – produces countless exchanges that bounce about unpredictably. In this spirit, Ruth’s concession to Frida that her tiger is just “a haunting and required nothing so practical as a door” isn’t the closure of something but a crisp beginning.

McFarlane’s inventiveness might have cost her some rigour when expounding her themes. The treatment of her missionaries in Fiji, for instance, can feel lightweight and half-hearted. This novel really glitters wherever the tiger takes us: through the interstices of the modern female psyche.

Catherine Ford

Catherine Ford is a freelance journalist. Her books include NYC and Dirt.

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