Thursday, 21 November 2013

The Night Guest by Fiona McFarlane | I grow old, I grow old

Ruth is a widow living by herself in what used to be the family's holiday house by the beach somewhere in Australia. Her two adult sons live too far away to visit often, so their contact is limited to sporadic telephone calls. Her husband passed away about a year ago, and until the night when Ruth is sure she hears a tiger prancing around in her lounge, Ruth has coped quite well alone. The arrival of the tiger, however, changes everything.

In the tiger's wake comes Frida, a lady who claims she's been sent by the government to be Ruth's "right arm". Ruth quickly gets used to having Frida around, who she thinks is from Fiji, the place where she spent her childhood. She starts reminiscing about her adolescence, and her big crush on Richard, a young doctor who stayed with her and her missionary family on Fiji. Through Frida, Ruth sends Richard a letter, and he comes to spend a quiet weekend with her. While he is there, Ruth realizes that Frida has moved into one of her son's rooms, uninvited, but when she confronts her about it, Frida claims that Ruth asked her to stay.

Soon the net that is tightening Frida and Ruth together is becoming more and more tangled. Ruth is completely dependent upon Frida, and when the tiger returns, Frida swears to protect Ruth from it. Then one night Frida fights the tiger all night, and in the morning claims to have killed it. But Ruth, in her heart of hearts, refuses to believe it.

There is a strong tension between Ruth and Frida throughout the novel. We never know if we can trust Ruth, who is old and seems to grow more and more confused with every passing day. At times I don't even know if Frida is there, or a figment of her imagination, because Ruth's perception of Frida's physical appearance keeps changing. We also don't trust Frida, whose motives are unclear. One minute she is all bright and happy, the next she is menacing and dark.

This is a different tiger story to any other I have read. But once again, the tiger seems to be associated with death somehow. Ruth has an ambivalent relationship to the tiger. She both fears it, and admires it. She doesn't want it to die. I'm not sure if the tiger then represents Ruth herself, and her ability to make sense of the world, or if, perhaps, the tiger is death itself, coming for Ruth. The Lord's return comes like a thief in the night. The tiger comes like a thief in the night, but so does Frida. The question is, who is the biggest threat to Ruth; the tiger or Frida?

This is an interesting novel about aging and facing death. Through revisiting her adolescent years in her reveries, Ruth desperately clings to life by trying to relive the past. But in the present, Ruth is forced to choose if she should trust Frida or be helplessly by herself without her.

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