The Night Guest is hard to categorise – it’s both a taut thriller and an altogether close-to-home examination of dementia and loneliness, written with a wonderful sense of pacing and language. Although the main plot deals with an elderly lady accepting a stranger into her home and life, the most resonant parts for me come from a beautifully muddled blending of memories and reality.
Like last year’s Norwegian by Night by Derek B. Miller, The Night Guest offers a compelling glimpse into the slow grip of dementia and confusion, albeit with a more sombre and less redemptive feel. Fiona McFarlane writes with a captivating hand, passing from lucidity to the more jumbled thoughts of the latter section of the book.
Starting out straightforwardly, we are introduced to Ruth, an elderly widow living alone in the home she and her husband used as a summer house. She spends much of her time alone, not wanting to bother her two sons who are busy with children of their own. One day, seemingly out of the blue, a care worker from the government named Frida shows up to help around the house for a couple of hours a day.
We are presented with the actions of Frida from an initially objective viewpoint – worries and suspicions are swept away by reasoned explanations as she slowly works her way into Ruth’s life, becoming invaluable to her and taking over the running of the household. But there are these little ripples under the surface that start to pile up, psychologically needling the reader as we are unsure whose side of events to trust. Ruth has started to hear and smell the telltale signs of a tiger beyond her bedroom at night, and she is getting more and more befuddled, leaning on Frida more and more.
It’s hard to believe this is a debut – it’s so brilliantly and heartbreaking realised. Lots to mull over – the loneliness and lack of close family interactions, the creeping fear of old age and the insidious, almost imprisoning level of care offered from strangers. A superb read, and almost certain to be one of my favourite novels of the year.