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Tiger, tiger, burning bright
on 11 December 2013
The Night Guest is a rather wonderful and quite surprising novel.
We meet a widow, Ruth, who lives alone in a remote house on the NSW South Coast. She is convinced as she lies in bed one night that she can hear a tiger in the living room.
A few days later, Frida arrives on her doorstep with a sheaf of papers explaining that she is a government funded nurse who will provide assessment and, perhaps, an hour of care each day. This leaves Ruth somewhat bemused and feeling somewhat patronised. But because Frida appears to be Fijian and Ruth had a happy childhood in Fiji, she decides to roll with it. Indeed, she even makes contact with a former lover who broke her heart back in those Fiji days. At this point and for the first quarter of the book, it's not totally clear what the story is. It feels a bit Autumn Laing - proud old woman stubbornly resisting society's expectation that she can't cope.
But it starts to become clear that Ruth really can't cope. Her memory is not great. Some things are remembered clearly although with time even the most confident memories start to look shaky. The novel starts to take shape around the relationship that builds between Ruth and Frida, set in counterpoint by Ruth's relationship with her sons and Frida's relationship with her brother George.
Bit by bit, tension builds. At first there are hints that all is not well. But the volume keeps increasing. By the end, the reader stands with Ruth staring into the abyss.
The Night Guest is best read without knowing too much about it. That way, the surprises will be genuine. It is beautifully paced and extremely engaging. There is an excellent evocation of old age, growing helplessness, and the conflict between wanting to help but being frustrated. There are excellent questions of master and servant relationships; the conflict of generations; the conflict of money; the conflict of coloniser and colonised. If you only read one book over the Christmas holidays, you could do a lot worse than this one.