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Fiona McFarlane: Night Guest

Ruth is a seventy-five year old widow, who lives on her own (though with cats) in a house which was the holiday cottage she and her husband bought but which is now her sole residence. Her husband, Harry, died of a heart attack just over a year ago. He was walking to get the newspaper, as he did every morning, when he collapsed. He was helped by a woman driving by, Ellen Gibson, but, by the time the ambulance arrived, he had died. Ruth has two sons, Phillip who lives in Hong Kong, and Jeffrey who lives in New Zealand. Both are married with children. Ruth tends to hear things. As the novel starts, she is in bed and imagines there is a tiger in her living room. The cats do not seem to notice the tiger.

One day, out of blue, a taxi pulls up and a large woman gets out. She is Frida Young. She has been sent, she says, to help Ruth. She is not a nurse but a government carer. Initially, she only comes for an hour a day, brought in a taxi by her brother, George, who owns a taxi. George used to have a successful taxi company but alcoholism and general bad behaviour has left him with one battered vehicle. Frida is Fijian but she does not look Fijian. Ruth knows about Fiji. Her parents were a doctor and nurse respectively but also committed Christians. They set up a clinic in Fiji and they moved there when Ruth was still young, so she grew up there. It was when she was there that she first fell in love – with Richard Porter. Richard was a doctor, working with Ruth’s parents. He was caring and committed but also fairly unconventional, which means that he did not go to church. Ruth hoped something would blossom and she was very optimistic when he kissed her at the dance. When both left together on the same ship for Sydney, she was even more optimistic, particularly as he kissed her again. However, he also told her that he was engaged to Kyoko, a Japanese widow, and had not mentioned it before so as not to upset her or her parents. She never saw him again, though they continued to exchange Christmas cards, post cards and occasional letters. She had learned, for example, that Kyoko had died shortly before Harry.

Meanwhile, Frida is coming regularly. She brings free oranges that George somehow gets. She cleans and she cooks. Ruth becomes more dependent on her and Jeffrey approves. There are forms to be filled out but that seems easy enough. Frida is large but is apparently on a diet. She has formally divorced food (she even has a certificate to that effect) though Ruth can see no signs of her losing weight. Harry had left Ruth a car but she does not like driving it. Frida knows a man and he comes along and gives her thirteen thousand dollars for it.

Eventually, Ruth decides she should contact Richard and invite him to stay. She does and he agrees. Frida agrees to provide extra help (for a charge) and does. Though he is now eighty, he does not seem to have changed much and the pair get on. When it is bedtime, Richard casually mentions Frida and her room. Ruth is surprised. Frida has no room in the house and, so she thought, had already left. However, she soon discovers that Frida has co-opted one of the rooms and is, indeed, staying. Ruth is horrified and tells her to leave. Frida refuses to go and there is an argument. However, things are resolved in the morning when Ruth learns that Frida and George have had a row and Frida has nowhere else to go. Meanwhile, Richard suggests that he and Ruth live together.

All during this book, we have been having doubts about Frida. Is she genuine? Is she really sent by the government? There is no doubt that Ruth’s mental health is not what it was. Indeed, the tiger reappears. So she becomes something of an unreliable narrator. Even though she is not the narrator, we do see many things through her eyes. Frida seems to be doing a lot to help Ruth without any charge. Jeffrey seems to accept her and she does seem to have various papers and forms of an official nature. Ruth clearly becomes very much dependent on her and grows very fond of her and trusts her very much. If she has an ulterior motive, it s not clear what it is. McFarlane, of course, does develop the plot and we do find out more about Frida, George and, indeed, Ruth. It is a well told tale and McFarlane keeps us guessing as to what is going on till the end.

Publishing history

First published 2013 by Hamish Hamilton