Some reasonable responses to sensing there's a tiger in your house: calling the police, climbing out the window, realizing you're probably imagining things and going back to sleep. Ruth Field, the elderly protagonist of Fiona McFarlane's stunning debut novel, The Night Guest, does none of the above. Instead, she telephones her son in New Zealand (Ruth lives on a beach north of Sydney), gets out of bed, calls out in the night, and pictures the headlines that could soon convey news of her death: "Australian Woman Eaten by Tiger in Own House," or, more salaciously, "Tiger Puts Pensioner on the Menu." The next morning, still unsure about the tiger's existence and its threat, she decides, "If one person walks on the beach in the next ten minutes, there's a tiger in my house at night; if there are two, the tiger won't hurt me; if there are three, the tiger will finish me off."
In light of such a blasť attitude about a death by tiger, it's perhaps unsurprising that Ruth calmly accepts the woman, Frida Young, who arrives later that day claiming to be a government worker sent to help her around the house. Ruth doesn't recall signing up for such a program, but she doesn't bother checking Frida's paperwork, either. From there, it's not long before Frida is living with Ruth and has full command of her finances. Ruth, meanwhile, slowly diminishes, becoming ever less capable of caring for herself.
The shape of the plot becomes clear from the moment Frida enters the story—even the most avoidable misfortunes take on shades of inevitability. The two women's strangely symbiotic relationship, in which strength is always accompanied by weakness in the other, is soon tinged with the macabre. Reading McFarlane's absorbing novel elicits the same sense of doom as watching a horror movie—you want to yell at the book, "No! Why are you doing that? Stop!"
But where horror movies tend to rely on generic characters as victims, The Night Guest has the bright, funny, and warm Ruth. After an ordinary life built around the routines of her late husband and her now-grown sons, she wants more than anything to be remarkable. She curses loudly for her own amusement. "She loved the crowded bluster of swearing, the sense of an audience; it was so humanizing," McFarlane writes. She takes the first, faltering steps towards rekindling a relationship with her first love, Richard Porter—a doctor she met when her parents were missionaries in Fiji. And at night, she plots what do about the tiger.
The question, then, is why someone as sharp as Ruth docilely accepts Frida's troubling behavior and demands. One obvious explanation is that the onset of dementia is impairing Ruth's faculties. Or perhaps she's merely succumbing to the ravages of old age, but then why does she decline so quickly? Frida might be drugging her, and she certainly engages in other sorts of psychological manipulation—turning off the ringer on Ruth's phone, insisting that Suva isn't the capital of Fiji—but Ruth seems to let herself be manipulated, regressing to a childlike state of trust. Even when she threatens to throw Frida out, Ruth quickly reverses course, horrified at the thought of losing her caretaker. Frida may steal Ruth's money, but she genuinely seems to care for her. The relationship between the two women becomes the twisted inverse of that between mother and daughter, with Frida the imperious parent and Ruth the child alternately petulant and desperate for approval.
The strangest part of Ruth's relationship with Frida is her absolute conviction that the younger woman is Fijian. Yet Frida never mentions having any connection to Fiji, and when Ruth tells Richard of this strange assumption, he's confused because Frida doesn't look the part. Regardless of her actual ancestry, Frida becomes a link to a time in Fiji that now seems more real to Ruth than the decades she spent building a life with her husband Harry. The cipher-like Frida, with her ever-changing hair and unwillingness to discuss the details of her personal history, becomes a symbol of the adventurous possibilities that the intervening decades have closed off.
Ruth and Frida appear simple enough—an elderly woman and the talented con artist who takes her for a ride—but they do odd, unaccountable things for complex and often opaque reasons. Their ordinariness just barely masks the potential for chaos that lurks underneath. As the structures of everyday life break down, that chaos seeps out, transforming a domestic drama into a tropical fever-dream where the past and the present are almost indistinguishable.
In The Night Guest, McFarlane has produced a gorgeous, uncanny book that serves as an artful reminder of how, even as the mundane experiences of a lifetime accrue and shape our decisions in strange and unexpected ways, those very experiences can prove as unsatisfying as they are important. Sooner or later, we all want to meet the tiger.
Alex Heimbach has written for Slate and Kirkus Reviews.