The Night Guest

The Night Guest

4.0 6
by Fiona McFarlane, Lisbeth Kennelly

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Ruth is widowed, her sons are grown, and she lives in an isolated beach house outside town. Her routines are few and small. One day a stranger arrives at her door, looking as if she has been blown in from the sea. This woman—Frida—claims to be a care worker sent by the government. Ruth lets her in.

Now that Frida is in the house, is Ruth right to fear


Ruth is widowed, her sons are grown, and she lives in an isolated beach house outside town. Her routines are few and small. One day a stranger arrives at her door, looking as if she has been blown in from the sea. This woman—Frida—claims to be a care worker sent by the government. Ruth lets her in.

Now that Frida is in the house, is Ruth right to fear the tiger she hears on the prowl at night, far from its jungle habitat? Why do memories of her childhood in Fiji press upon her with increasing urgency? How far can she trust this mysterious woman, Frida, who seems to carry her own troubled past? And how far can Ruth trust herself?

The Night Guest, Fiona McFarlane’s hypnotic first novel, is no simple tale of a crime committed and a mystery solved. This is a story that soars above its own suspense and tells us, with exceptional grace and beauty, about aging, love, trust, dependence, and fear; about processes of colonization; and about things (and people) in places they shouldn’t be. Here is a new writer who comes to us fully formed, creating wonders with language, renewing our faith in the power of fiction to describe the mysterious workings of our minds.

Editorial Reviews

The New York Times Book Review - Patrick McGrath
McFarlane is a warmhearted writer…Graceful and unhurried, she demonstrates a quirky imagination and has an unsentimental affection for her characters.
The New York Times - John Williams
Ms. McFarlane's debut, filled with lively writing and convincing psychological portraiture, is a slowly unfolding mystery that is less about who done it than about the vagaries of "that sticky organ," the human brain.
From the Publisher

“Enthralling . . . This stellar debut will haunt you--and remind you to call your mother.” —Entertainment Weekly (A-)

“A novel of uncanny emotional penetration; it had me flipping to the back cover more than once to scrutinize the author photo. How could anyone so young portray so persuasively what it feels like to look back on a lot more life than you can see in front of you? . . . A low thrum of terror builds ever so gradually as The Night Guest proceeds, and its source is the slippery connection between the mind and the world . . . What makes The Night Guest especially unnerving is the way it immerses the reader in a mind that is slowly slipping its moorings. As McFarlane depicts it, in clean, sinuous prose, you begin to lose your self by burrowing deeper inside it . . . You're in [Ruth's] head, and that head gets less and less sound as the novel progresses, but it's a strangely delightful place to be, for all the darkness surrounding it.” —Laura Miller, Salon

“Mesmerizing.” —Nylon

“[A] striking debut.” —Megan O'Gray,

“I've been on a string of reading successes with FSG affiliates Faber & Faber, and this excellent novel, part psychological thriller, part wistful look at aging, is a perfect example . . . McFarlane imbues this suspenseful tale with powerful details and a touching sense of the uncertainty at the twilight of life. There's something about [The Night Guest] that lingers in my imagination, much like the tiger that Ruth hears rattling around her home. I look forward to [McFarlane's] future work.” —Megan Sullivan, Head Buyer at Harvard Book Store on her blog The Book Dwarf

“McFarlane wields a lot of clever, literary trickery here, especially for a debut novelist . . . A deeply interior literary thriller--subtle and swift and fragile.” —Kevin Nguyen, Grantland

“An enrapturing debut novel . . . Startling and elegant.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“Rich and suspenseful . . . [The Night Guest] is at once a beautifully imagined portrait of isolation and an unsettling psychological thriller.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“Gothic in sensibility, with a touch of magic realism, this novel feels at once like a classic and a fresh, original tale . . . Fans of psychologically oriented Scandinavian fiction should feel a familiar draw to this first novel, which is already creating significant buzz around the globe.” —Library Journal (starred review)

“McFarlane's crisp, clean prose is a pleasure to read.” —Booklist (starred review)

“Extraordinary, funny and dark. I read it twice and loved it both times.” —Evie Wyld, author of All the Birds, Singing

“With echoes of the perspective-shifting novels of Iris Murdoch, The Night Guest is a haunting tale of aging and independence.” —Nathan Rostron, Bookish Must-Read Fiction Preview: Best Books for Fall 2013

“I have read the opening paragraph of Fiona McFarlane's debut novel three times now--at first, slowly; but then with increasing, heart-pounding speed each time--and I am convinced it's one of the most enticing openings to a novel I've read all year.” —David Abrams, The Quivering Pen

The Night Guest is an extraordinary novel. At once a tender thriller and an exquisitely constructed meditation on time and memory, it is propelled by sentence after sentence of masterful prose. With The Night Guest, Fiona McFarlane announces herself as a writer to be read, admired, and read again.” —Kevin Powers, author of The Yellow Birds

The Night Guest is deeply disturbing and exquisitely written--full of joy and melancholy--and I willingly accept that I will be haunted by its beauty and its truths for a long time to come. The story is told with a certain inevitability, yet at the same time is surprises, confounds, and torments. A rapturous, fearsome fable of grief and love.” —Susanna Moore, author of In the Cut

The Night Guest is such an accomplished and polished debut. There's a delicacy and poignancy to the writing, combined with almost unbearable suspense. I love books in which I have no idea what's going to happen next!” —Kate Atkinson, author of Life After Life

Head Buyer at Harvard Book Store on her blog The B Megan Sullivan

I've been on a string of reading successes with FSG affiliates Faber & Faber, and this excellent novel, part psychological thriller, part wistful look at aging, is a perfect example . . . McFarlane imbues this suspenseful tale with powerful details and a touching sense of the uncertainty at the twilight of life. There's something about [The Night Guest] that lingers in my imagination, much like the tiger that Ruth hears rattling around her home. I look forward to [McFarlane's] future work.
Bookish Must-Read Fiction Preview: Best Books Nathan Rostron

With echoes of the perspective-shifting novels of Iris Murdoch, The Night Guest is a haunting tale of aging and independence.

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The Night Guest

A Novel

By Fiona McFarlane

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2013 Fiona McFarlane
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-86547-773-5


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 and breathing 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 enormous noses. But the sleeping cats were weighing down the sheets at the end of Ruth's bed, and this was something else.

She lay and listened. Sometimes the house was quiet, and then she only heard the silly clamour of her beating blood. At other times she heard a distant low whine followed by exploratory breaths. The cats woke and stretched and stared and finally, when whatever was in the lounge room gave out a sharp huff, flew from the bed and ran, ecstatic with fear, into the hallway, through the kitchen, and out the partially open back door. This sudden activity prompted an odd strangled yowl from the lounge room, and it was this noise, followed by louder sniffing, that confirmed the intruder as a tiger. Ruth had seen one eating at a German zoo, and it sounded just like this: loud and wet, with a low, guttural breathing hum punctuated by little cautionary yelps, as if it might roar at any moment except that it was occupied by food. Yes, it sounded just like that, like a tiger eating some large bloody thing, and yet the noise of it was empty and meatless. A tiger! Ruth, thrilled by this possibility, forgot to be frightened and had to counsel herself back into fear. The tiger sniffed again, a rough sniff, thick with saliva. It turned on its great feet, as if preparing to settle down.

Ruth sent one courageous hand out into the dark to find the phone on her bedside table. She pressed the button that was programmed to summon her son Jeffrey, who would, in his sensible way, be sleeping right now in his house in New Zealand. The telephone rang; Ruth, hearing the creak of Jeffrey's throat as he answered the phone, was unrepentant.

"I hear noises," she said, her voice low and urgent—the kind of voice she'd rarely used with him before.

"What? Ma?" He was bumping up out of sleep. His wife would be waking, too; she would be rolling worried in bed and turning on a lamp.

"I can hear a tiger, not roaring, just panting and snorting. It's like he's eating, and also concentrating very hard." So she knew he was a male tiger, and that was a comfort; a female tiger seemed more threatening.

Now Jeffrey's voice stiffened. "What time is it?"

"Listen," said Ruth. She held the phone away from her, into the night, but her arm felt vulnerable, so she brought it back. "Did you hear that?"

"No," said Jeffrey. "Was it the cats?"

"It's much larger than a cat. Than a cat cat."

"You're telling me there's a what, there's a tiger in your house?"

Ruth said nothing. She wasn't telling him there was a tiger in her house; she was telling him she could hear one. That distinction seemed important, now that she was awake and Jeffrey was awake, and his wife, too, and probably at this point the children.

"Oh, Ma. There's no tiger. It's either a cat or a dream."

"I know that," said Ruth. She knew there couldn't be a tiger; but she wasn't sure it was a dream. She was awake, after all. And her back hurt, which it never did in dreams. But now she noticed the noises had stopped. There was only the ordinary outside sound of the breaking sea.

"Would you like to go and investigate?" asked Jeffrey. "I'll stay on the phone with you." His voice conveyed a serene weariness; Ruth suspected he was reassuring his wife with an eyes-closed shake of the head that everything was all right, that his mother was just having one of her moments. When he'd visited a few weeks ago, at Easter, Ruth had noticed a new watchful patience in him, and a tendency to purse his lips whenever she said something he considered unusual. So she knew, from the funny mirror of Jeffrey's face, that she had reached the stage where her sons worried about her.

"No, darling, it's all right," she said. "So silly! I'm sorry. Go back to sleep."

"Are you sure?" said Jeffrey, but he sounded foggy; he had already abandoned her.

Jeffrey's dismissal made her brave. Ruth rose from her bed and crossed the room without turning on any lights. She watched the white step of her feet on the carpeted floor until she reached the bedroom door; then she stopped and called, "Hello?" Nothing answered, but there was, Ruth was sure, a vegetable smell in the long hallway, and an inland feel to the air that didn't suit this seaside house. The clammy night was far too hot for May. Ruth ventured another "Hello?" and pictured, as she did so, the headlines: "Australian Woman Eaten by Tiger in Own House." Or, more likely, "Tiger Puts Pensioner on the Menu." This delighted her; and there was another sensation, a new one, to which she attended with greater care: a sense of extravagant consequence. Something important, Ruth felt, was happening to her, and she couldn't be sure what it was: the tiger, or the feeling of importance. They seemed to be related, but the sense of consequence was disproportionate to the actual events of the night, which were, after all, a bad dream, a pointless phone call, and a brief walk to the bedroom door. She felt something coming to meet her—something large, and not a real thing, of course, she wasn't that far gone—but a shape, or anyway a temperature. It produced a funny bubble in her chest. The house was quiet. Ruth pressed at the tenderness of her chest; she closed the bedroom door and followed her own feet back to bed. Her head filled and shifted and blurred again. The tiger must be sleeping now, she thought, so Ruth slept, too, and didn't wake again until the late morning.

The lounge room, when Ruth entered it in daylight, was benign. The furniture was all where it should be, civil, neat, and almost anxious for her approval, as if it had crossed her in some way and was now waiting for her forgiveness, dressed in its very best clothes. Ruth was oppressed by this wheedling familiarity. She crossed to the window and opened the lace curtains with a dramatic gesture. The front garden looked exactly as it usually did—the grevillea needed trimming—but Ruth saw a yellow taxi idling at the end of the drive, half hidden by the casuarinas. It looked so solitary, so needlessly bright. The driver must be lost and need directions; that happened from time to time along this apparently empty stretch of coast.

Ruth surveyed the room again. "Ha!" she said, as if daring it to frighten her. When it failed to, she left it in something like disgust. She went to the kitchen, opened the shutters, and looked out at the sea. It lay waiting below the garden, and although she was unable to walk down to it—the dune was too steep, and her back too unpredictable—she felt soothed by its presence in an indefinable way, just as she imagined a plant might be by Mozart. The tide was full and flat across the beach. The cats came out from the dune grasses; they stopped in the doorway, nuzzling the inside air with their suspicious noses until, in a sudden surfeit of calm, they passed into the house. Ruth poured some dry food into their bowls and watched as they ate without ceasing until the food was gone. Something about the way they ate was biblical, she had decided; it had the character of a plague.

Now Ruth made tea. She sat in her chair—the one chair her back could endure for any length of time—and ate pumpkin seeds for breakfast. This chair was an enormous wooden object, inherited from her husband's family; it looked like the kind a Victorian vicar might teeter on while writing sermons. But it braced Ruth's back, so she kept it near the dining-room table, by the window that looked over the garden and dune and beach. She sat in her chair and drank tea and examined the new sensation—the extravagance, the consequence—she had experienced in the night, and which remained with her now. Certainly it was dreamlike; it had a dream's diminishing character. She knew that by lunchtime she might have forgotten it entirely. The feeling reminded her of something vital—not of youth, exactly, but of the urgency of youth—and she was reluctant to give it up. For some time now she had hoped that her end might be as extraordinary as her beginning. She also appreciated how unlikely that was. She was a widow and she lived alone.

The pumpkin seeds Ruth ate for breakfast were one of the few items in the pantry. She spread them out on her left hand and lifted them to her mouth, two at a time, with her right. One must go in the left side, at the back of her teeth; the other must go in the right. She was like this about her daily pills, too; they would be more effective if she was careful about how she took them. Through this symmetry—always begin a flight of stairs on her left foot, always end it on her right—she maintained the order of her days. If she had dinner ready in time for the six o'clock news, both of her sons would come home for Christmas. If that taxi driver didn't ring the front doorbell, she would be allowed to stay in her chair for two hours. She looked out at the sea and counted the pattern of the waves: if there were fewer than eight small ones before another big curler, she would sweep the garden path of sand. To sweep the sand from the path was a holy punishment, a limitless task, so Ruth set traps for herself in order to decide the matter. She hated to sweep, hated anything so senseless; she hated to make her bed only to unmake it again in the evening. Long ago she had impressed the importance of these chores upon her sons and believed in them as she did so. Now she thought, 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. And the possibility of this produced one of those brief, uncontrollable shivers, which Ruth thought of as beginning in the brain and letting themselves out through the soles of the feet.

"It's nearly winter," she said aloud, looking out at the flattening sea; the tide was going out. "It's nearly bloody winter."

Ruth would have liked to know another language in order to revert to it at times of disproportionate frustration. She'd forgotten the Hindi she knew when, as a child, she lived in Fiji. Lately, swearing—in which she indulged in a mild, girlish way—was her other language. She counted seven small waves, which meant she had to sweep the path, and so she said "Shit," but didn't stir from her chair. She was capable of watching the sea all day. This morning, an oil tanker waited on the rim of the world, as if long-sufferingly lost, and farther around the bay, near the town, Ruth could make out surfers. They rode waves that from here looked bath-sized, just toy swells. And in every way this was ordinary, except that a large woman was approaching, looking as if she had been blown in from the sea. She toiled up the dune directly in front of the house, dragging a suitcase that, after some struggle, she abandoned among the grasses. It slid a little way down the hill. Once she had made her determined way to the top of the dune, the woman moved with steadfast purpose through the garden. She filled up a little more of the sky with every step. Her breadth and the warmth of her skin and the dark sheen of her obviously straightened hair looked Fijian to Ruth, who rose from her chair to meet her guest at the kitchen door. Her back didn't complain when she stood; that, and the woman's nationality, made her optimistic about the encounter. Ruth stepped into the garden and surprised the woman, who seemed stranded without her suitcase, exhausted from her uphill climb, encased in a thin grey coat, with the thin grey sea behind her. Perhaps she had been shipwrecked, or marooned.

"Mrs. Field! You're home!" the woman cried, and she advanced on Ruth with a reckless energy that dispelled the impression of shipwreck.

"Here I am," said Ruth.

"Large as life," said the woman, and she held out both hands cupped together as if they had just caught a bothersome fly. Ruth must offer her hands in return; she offered; the woman took them into her sure, steady grip, and together they stood in the garden as if this were what the woman had come for. The top of Ruth's head didn't quite reach her visitor's shoulders.

"You'll have to excuse me," said the woman. "I'm done in. I was worried about you! I knocked at the front, and when you didn't answer I thought I'd come round the back way. Didn't know what a hill there'd be! Woof," she said, as if imitating an expressionless dog.

"I didn't hear you knocking."

"You didn't?" The woman frowned and looked down at her hands as if they had failed her.

"Do I know you?" Ruth asked. She meant this sincerely; possibly she did know her. Possibly this woman had once been a young girl sitting on Ruth's mother's knee. Perhaps this woman's mother had been ill in just the right small way that would bring her to Ruth's father's clinic. There were always children at the clinic; they dallied and clowned, they loved anyone who came their way, and they all left punctually with their families. Maybe this woman came out of those old days with a message or a greeting. But she was probably too young to have been one of those children—Ruth guessed early forties, smooth-faced and careful of her appearance. She wasn't wearing makeup, but she had the heavy kind of eyelids that always look powdered in a soft brown.

"Sorry, sorry." The woman released Ruth's hands, propped one arm against the house, and said, "You don't know me from Adam." Then she adopted a professional tone. "My name is Frida Young, and I'm here to look after you."

"Oh, I didn't realize!" cried Ruth, as if she'd invited someone to a social event and then forgotten all about it. She stepped away from the bulky shadow of Frida Young's leaning. In a fluttering, puzzled, almost flirtatious voice, she said, "Do I need looking after?"

"Couldn't you use a hand round the place? If someone rocked up to my front door—my back door—and offered to look after me, I'd kiss their feet."

"I don't understand," said Ruth. "Did my sons send you?"

"The government sent me," said Frida, who seemed cheerfully certain of the results of their chat: she had eased off her shoes—sandshoes from which the laces had been removed—and was flexing her toes in the sandy grass. "You were on our waiting list and a spot opened up."

"What for?" The telephone began to ring. "Do I pay for this?" asked Ruth, flustered by all the activity.

"No, love! The government pays. What a deal, huh?"

"Excuse me," said Ruth, moving into the kitchen. Frida followed her.

Ruth picked up the phone and held it to her ear without speaking.

"Ma?" said Jeffrey. "Ma? Is that you?"

"Of course it's me."

"I just wanted to check in. Make sure you hadn't been eaten in the night." Jeffrey indulged in the tolerant chuckle his father used to employ at times of loving exasperation.

"That wasn't necessary, darling. I'm absolutely fine," said Ruth. Frida began to motion in a way that Ruth interpreted as a request for a glass of water; she nodded to imply she would see to it soon. "Listen, dear, there's someone here with me right now."

Frida clattered about the kitchen, opening cupboards and the refrigerator.

"Oh! Then I'll let you go."

"No, Jeff, I wanted to tell you, she's a helper of some kind." Ruth turned to Frida. "Excuse me, but what are you, exactly? A nurse?"

"A nurse?" said Jeffrey.

"A government carer," said Frida.

Ruth preferred the sound of this. "She's a government carer, Jeff, and she says she's here to help me."

"You're kidding me," said Jeffrey. "How did she find you? How does she seem?"

"She's right here."

"Put her on."

Ruth handed the phone to Frida, who took it good-naturedly and cradled it against her shoulder. It was an old-fashioned kind of phone, a large heavy crescent, cream-coloured and attached to the wall by a particularly long white cord that meant Ruth could carry it anywhere in the house.


Excerpted from The Night Guest by Fiona McFarlane. Copyright © 2013 Fiona McFarlane. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Fiona McFarlane was born in 1978 in Sydney, Australia, and holds degrees in English from Sydney University and Cambridge University, as well as an M.F.A. from the University of Texas at Austin, where she was a Michener Fellow. Her work has been published in The New Yorker, Zoetrope: All-Story, The Missouri Review, and The Best Australian Stories. She lives in Sydney.

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The Night Guest: A Novel 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 6 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book is amazing!  I stayed up until 1:00 am to finish it, woke up this morning and re-read both the first two chapters and the last two.  Intriguing and well written.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
An interesting look at aging and the workings of the mind. Original, creative, leaves you wanting a next novel from this author.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Interesting in the sense that it was very different. Leaves you guessing; I still don't know who the night guest was. Makes me want to keep a better eye on my elderly parents.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Held my interest all the way through. Sad but true comentary on how society treats the elderly. Makes it easy to see how aging people can be taken advantage of. The author really made me feel the same confution Ruth felt. All in all a pretty gpod book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
cloggiedownunder More than 1 year ago
The Night Guest is the first novel by Australian author, Fiona McFarlane. In a novel filled with gorgeous, evocative prose, McFarlane builds a tale encompassing the following elements: an old widow living alone (Ruth Field); a deceased husband (Harry); two sons remotely located (Jeffrey and Phillip); a formidable care worker who insinuates herself into the widow’s life (Frida Young); the elderly man who was once the object of the widow’s teenage infatuation (Richard Porter); a taxi driver (Frida’s brother, George); a good Samaritan (Ellen Gibson); a substantial sum of money; two cats; a beachfront cottage; and a (possibly imaginary) tiger. McFarlane’s characters are familiar and believable, although occasionally, larger than life, and their dialogue is realistic. Her descriptions are redolent with rich imagery: “Frida sat on the unfamiliar chair and looked at Ruth, impassive. Her obstinacy had a mineral quality. Ruth felt she could chip away at it with a sharp tool and reveal nothing more than the uniformity of its composition” and “Ruth’s back objected to all this. She often imagined her back as an instrument; that way she could decide if the pain was playing in the upper or lower registers. Sometimes it was just a long, low note, and sometimes it was insistent and shrill. Lying in the sand, it was both. It was a whole brassy, windy ensemble” and “The day was that wet, pressed sort on which no one would make the effort to come to this part of the beach. In weather like this, the beach was revealed as both dangerous and dirty. The sea was oppressive, and the sky was bright and colourless and dragged down upon its surface” are just a few examples. McFarlane deftly creates the environment in which the events of her plot seem entirely plausible, and the reader will be filled with an escalating sense of foreboding as the novel progresses. McFarlane’s novel explores many topics: vulnerability, imagination, confusion and forgetfulness (“Where had all this been waiting while she worked so effortlessly to forget it? She sat trembling with gratitude for her brain, that sticky organ.”), as well as loss of independence, help, caring, communication, love and trust. This is quite an amazing debut novel.