What is it about tigers? They're enchanting and terrifying in the way nothing else in the animal kingdom is; they can add an instant frisson to a narrative, a hook to a title, and they can even make me like magic realism. To be honest, I began my Tigers series on this blog because I happened to read three books in a row about tigers, but if I wanted to pretend that wasn't the case, I'd be able to find a lot of evidence for the of the fictional tiger, starting with that classic, The Tiger That Came to Tea. But to return to the topic at hand. Fiona McFarlane's debut, The Night Guest, is no exception to the tigers rule. It begins memorably with the ageing Ruth awakening to the sounds of a tiger moving through her house on the coast of New South Wales: 'Ruth woke at four in the morning and her blurry brain said "Tiger." That was natural: she was dreaming. But there were noises in the house, and as she woke she heard them. They came across the hallway from the lounge room. Something large was rubbing against Ruth's couch and television and, she suspected, the wheat-coloured recliner disguised as a wingback chair. Other sounds followed: the panting of a large animal; a vibrancy of breath that suggested enormity and intent; definite mammalian noises, definitely feline, as if her cats had grown in size and were sniffing for food with huge noses. But the sleeping cats were weighing down the sheets at the end of Ruth's bed, and this was something else.'
The reason I've quoted this opening paragraph at such length is because I think it so strongly demonstrates the quality of McFarlane's writing and of her portrayal of Ruth. The rhythm of the paragraph is beautifully judged; the bald statement at the beginning followed by the reassuring rock of the two clauses divided by a colon; the pitch-perfect description of the tiger as a huge household cat followed by the songlike last sentence that confirms Ruth's fears but is somehow reassuring, preparing us for Ruth's thrill, rather than horror, at this possibility. Ruth's character is also beginning to be established in these few lines; we guess that she is old, but we cannot write her off as an anxious and helpless old lady, as we witness the logical progression of her thought and the accuracy of her description of the tiger's noises. This feeds into one of the central themes of the novel - ageing, and the determination to hold on to one's independence - and instantly puts us on Ruth's side, as we see that although she may struggle with mobility and back problems, her mind isn't one to patronise or stereotype. (The electronic proof I received from the publishers repeated this paragraph numerous times, and, as a finale, scattered its words throughout the copyright information at the front. Although this was clearly an error, I'm quite thankful for it; it allowed me to appreciate McFarlane's prose in a way I'm not sure I would have done had I simply rushed on to the next paragraph.)
The day after the visit of the tiger, a woman called Frida arrives at Ruth's house, claiming that she is a government carer and that she is here to give Ruth help around the household. Ruth, who is capable and independent, argues that she doesn't need any help, but Frida insists… and so the games begin. Although we suspect Frida's motives from the start, however, this novel never becomes merely a story about a poor old woman duped by somebody with dubious intentions. Firstly, as I explored above, Ruth never falls into the stereotypes we often believe about the elderly, and McFarlane effectively demonstrates how easily somebody with a capable working memory could come to doubt their own mind in the face of a stronger-willed opponent, as when Frida insists that Ruth must retract her 'wrong' statement that Suva is the capital of Fiji. Secondly, as the tiger continues to prowl, we recognise that the links between Frida and the tiger are more complex than we initially expected. If Frida is the tiger, what can we make of Ruth's affection for it, and her delight in its presence? Is this simply another demonstration of how Frida has abused Ruth's trust? But the tiger also brings with it a jungle - described in words wonderfully reminiscent of the jungle in Max's room in Where the Wild Things Are - and the jungle offers Ruth solace as well, even after the tiger is gone.
Like Life of Pi, The Night Guest resists a simple symbolic interpretation, but it's very much worth reading for Ruth's voice alone, and difficult to say much more without spoiling the novel. I'll be looking for another tiger book to complete the Tigers series (ten seems a round number). And I managed to mention two picture books in this post - both highly recommended.
NB. I received a free electronic copy of this title from the publisher via NetGalley. It's out on January 16th.