From my childhood, I remember the story of the Emperor’s New Clothes, where the vain emperor is conned into parading the streets wearing a suit of clothes which is invisible to anyone either unfit for office, or ‘unusually stupid’. Of course, the ruler is actually stark, bollock naked and only one little boy speaks up, primarily because he is too young to understand the significance of not keeping up the charade. Reading ‘The Night Guest’ by Fiona McFarlane reminded me of the story. Only, I am not sure if I am the child in the crowd or an idiot! As with other books I have found which are preceded by pages of plaudits and praise (there are 21 reviews in the front of this paperback), I wonder if a couple of critics thought it was great, then everyone else joined in so they didn’t look daft!
Ruth is an elderly widow living alone in a house by the sea, with just her two cats for company. Her two grown-up sons speak to her infrequently by phone; their mother seems to be ‘out of sight, out of mind.’ At night, Ruth senses a tiger prowling around in her house. Being aware of Ruth’s obviously precarious grip on reality, the reader should be pleased when a government carer named Frida arrives to assist Ruth in her own home. But in fact, Frida is rather a dodgy character, and I was suspicious of her from the outset. Sure enough, as Ruth depends more and more upon Frida, the carer’s behaviour and actions become increasingly sinister.
As a narrator, Ruth is unreliable. Her short-term memory is clearly fading (she forgets to wash her hair) but her recollections of her youth in Fiji are more vivid. She is lonely and isolated, things get confused in her mind and these are presented in well-crafted prose: the author drops subtle hints like a crime thriller writer. I was able to pick up on the inferences and deduce what was actually happening but for me, the writing totally lacked tension. The conclusion of the story was not a psychological cliff-hanger, it was unsurprising. The book hasn’t haunted me. It ‘stalked the mind’ of Sebastian Shakespeare from The Tatler; it just followed me around for a bit. More of a homeless moggy than an awesome big cat.
As you will have figured, I just didn’t understand the hype surrounding this debut novel. As my teenager would say; ‘meh’. Just as Ruth’s tiger is elusive and only shows up at night, so the charms of ‘The Night Guest’ remained largely hidden to me. Don’t trust me on this one; I am obviously totally unfit for the office of amateur blogger!