‘The Night Guest’ – Fiona McFarlane (review)

I am still feeling disturbed. 

‘The Night Guest’ is a haunting novel. It depicts the frailty of those who lose the ability to maintain independence, and the psychological manipulation that can be injected into such a fragile situation. 

Ruth lives alone following the death of her husband. She is content in her solitude, enjoying the peace of the seaside location and finding comfort in small routines from which her decision making ability is largely based. Enter Frida, sent by the government to assist Ruth with cleaning, shopping and chores which require some physical mobility. Frida seems a larger-than-life character who brings joy, companionship, and motherly concern to Ruth’s retired life. 

However, like Kathy Bates in ‘Misery’ the situation soon plants uncomfortable niggles for the reader, not least a sense that Ruth is being slowly removed and conditioned against the outside world and external parties. Financial undertones in conversation, appeals to sympathy, and the pretense of a life downtrodden paint the unfortunate picture that is seen often enough in news headlines and current affair programs: an abuse of power leaving an aging person in financial and emotional ruin

From the beginning, Ruth describes a tiger which lurks within her house, bringing with it the smells, sounds and humidity of a jungle from her childhood. This tiger becomes the property of Frida – ‘Frida’s Tiger’ – and is slaughtered in an epic, yet unseen battle which leaves Ruth eternally grateful for her carer’s presence and heroic gesture. This is representative of all Frida comes to mean to Ruth. An increase in dependence is not only seen by the reader, but evokes feelings of anger, injustice, sadness.

Fiona McFarlane’s novel is tightly written, gripping, and consistent in progression. She has chosen a difficult subject and carries it forth with chilling ‘believability’. Reading this, I wanted nothing more than to save Ruth from the clutches of Frida, to remind her of the truth, to protect her from vile psychological influence. Any story with an unreliable narrator presents questions that may never be answered, and ‘The Night Guest’ certainly fulfilled that for me.

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