The Night Guest

By Fiona McFarlane Penguin Random House


Fiona McFarlane

Judges' report


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.