The Long Goodbye
The Night Guest, Fiona McFarlane, 288pp.
Penguin Australia, 2013.
On a trip into town for some shopping, Ruth bumps into a person who turned out to know her:
Mrs Field! Ruth! cried this woman. She was so very small – ‘petite’, Ruth’s mother would have called her – that she made Ruth think of a little toy prised from an expensive Advent calendar. Ruth tried to arrange her face into an expression of recognition; she must have failed because the woman said, with a hopeful smile, ‘It’s Ellen?’
Although McFarlane never uses the word “dementia” in the book, it is clear that Ruth is struggling with it.
The book has a personal connection to me: my grandmother suffers from dementia and have, on several occasions, visited her to receive that same “expression of recognition.” McFarlane, in an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald, revealed, “both my grandmothers suffered from dementia, and I wanted to write respectfully and unsentimentally about this.”
Ruth Field lives alone in her seaside home on the Coast of New South Wales with her favourite chair – helping her ailing back and to watch the whales pass by her house – her cats and her fading memory, blurring together the past and present. Early one morning, a tiger visits Ruth. Not long after the tiger makes its first visit to Ruth’s home, Ruth receives an unexpected visitor, Frida, sent by the government to care for Ruth for a few hours per day.
Gradually, throughout the novel, the true extent of how Frida will “care” for Ruth is revealed. Ruth’s son’s, Jeffery and Phillip, who live in New Zealand and Hong Kong respectively, leave Ruth to her own devices and loneliness, even though they are in constant contact through phone calls. This enables the large, exaggerated and often tender Frida to insert herself into Ruth’s life.
Frida begins by relieving Ruth of duties such as cooking, cleaning and washing. This leaves Ruth to begin reflecting on her past life: growing up in Fiji with her parents, meeting her first love Richard, moving to Australia to experience her first heartbreak, meeting her husband, Harry, having children and eventually retiring to the Coast in New South Wales. Eventually, Ruth and Frida’s relationship quickly becomes indispensible, transforming into a kind of love and reliance:
Ruth waited every weekday morning for Frida to come in her golden taxi, and when she left they fell into silences of relief and regret. Ruth found herself looking forward to the disruption of her days; she was a little disgusted with herself for succumbing so quickly.
As the novel progresses, along with Ruth’s confusion and dementia, Ruth does not know who to trust. Ruth extends an invite to Richard, Ruth’s first love from Fiji, to visit. Richard takes up this offer and does visit for the weekend. However, to Ruth’s surprise, Frida has moved into Phillip’s old room: “Oh, dear. You knew I was staying over, to help with Richard’s visit. Remember?” The growing confusion of Ruth makes it easy for Frida to manipulate Ruth for her own personal gain. However, is this her only true motivation? There are scenes of affection between Ruth and Frida that constantly challenge our expectations of what Frida is really doing.
The Night Guest is a brilliant debut novel from McFarlane. The novel is masterfully created with a compulsive readability around a modern topic. It is unusual for a young writer to write about the elderly, however, McFarlane has produced a suspense novel layered with gentle humour, lonlieness, isolation, memory and tenderness, that studies the vulnerability faced by the elderly. The novel also poses an important question: who is to care for the elderly when others are unwilling or unable to do so?