One morning Ruth wakes thinking a tiger has been in her seaside house. Later that day a formidable woman called Frida arrives, looking as if she’s blown in from the sea. In fact she’s come to care for Ruth.
Frida and the tiger: both are here to stay, and neither is what they seem. Which of them can Ruth trust? And as memories of her childhood in Fiji press upon her with increasing urgency, can she even trust herself?
Fiona McFarlane was born in Sydney, and has degrees in English from Sydney University and Cambridge University, and an MFA from the University of Texas at Austin, where she was a Michener Fellow. Her work has been published in Zoetrope: All-Story, Southerly, the Best Australian Stories and the New Yorker, and she has received fellowships from the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Phillips Exeter Academy and the Australia Council for the Arts. The Night Guest, her debut novel, was shortlisted for the 2014 Stella Prize, and has sold into fifteen territories around the world. Her collection of short stories, The High Places, was published in 2016. She lives in Sydney.
This is a remarkable debut novel that recalls the classic Australian TV series Mother and Son in the way it uses humour to soften the reality of dementia. Ruth at 75, widowed when her husband dies suddenly of a heart attack, is living alone in their house on the New South Wales coast when one night she’s woken by noises in the house. What she can hear, she thinks, is a tiger in the living room. This is the beginning of Ruth’s decline, and from that point neither she nor the reader is ever entirely sure of what is real and what is imaginary. The story explores Ruth’s consciousness in an empathetic and imaginative way, showing us how the world looks from inside her mind.
McFarlane takes the long history of the tiger as a literary symbol and uses it in a mercurial way to anchor her story of Ruth’s relationship with Frida, who simply turns up one morning claiming she’s been ‘sent by the government’ to act as Ruth’s carer. The two women’s relationship has its swings and roundabouts, with each needing the other and elements of folie à deux creeping into their increasingly strange connection. Frida turns out to be not what she seems, and in her own way is as ambiguous and potentially deadly as the tiger itself. The themes of exploitation and invasion are subtly woven into the main story of ageing and decline, and McFarlane uses the symbolic and the surreal in ways that linger in the reader’s mind long after the book is closed.