The latest addition to my website is Fiona McFarlane‘s Night Guest. This book is on the shortlist for the Australian Miles Franklin Award. It tells the story of Ruth, a seventy-five year old woman who lives alone in what had been the holiday home of her and her husband, Harry. Harry had died of a heart attack around a year previously. Ruth’s two grown-up sons live abroad – one in Hong Kong and the other in New Zealand. One day she gets a visitor – Frida Young – who says that she has been sent by the government to look after her. Initially, Frida only comes for a day but is very helpful, cleaning and making Ruth’s lunch. However, she starts coming for longer.
During this period, we learn about Ruth’s early life. Her parents were a doctor and nurse respectively but also very religious and they set up a clinic in Fiji, so Ruth passed most of her childhood there. As a young woman, she fell in love with a doctor who worked with her parents in the clinic – Robert Porter. As he kissed her once or twice, she was convinced it would lead to something but on the ship to Sydney, on which they travelled together, he told her that he was engaged to a Japanese widow and had kept quiet about it, so as not to offend Ruth and her parents. Though they kept in touch by Christmas card and postcards, they did not see each other again. However, Ruth now decides to get in touch with him again, as she has learned that his wife has died shortly before Harry. He comes and stays and she still feels a strong affection for him. This seems to be reciprocated, as he asks her to come and live with him. Ruth has had some mental issues – she continually imagines there is a tiger prowling around the house, as the two covers shown at left above and right indicate – so, as we start to wonder what Frida is doing and whether she is genuine, we are also aware that Ruth does imagine things and has also become very dependent on Frida. McFarlane gradually builds a story of Frida who seems to be very caring and helpful and for which she is either not getting paid or getting paid by the government, as she states, and Ruth who is increasingly dependent on Frida and feels a strong attachment to her. It is a well-told story that keeps us guessing to the end.