By Samantha Cox
The sounds of the waves and burnt warmth of the Australian sun came to London this week, as Australian author Fiona McFarlane launched her debut novel, The Night Guest. This hypnotic tale explores ageing, love, dependence, fear and power, set against a backdrop of coastal Australia.
At the launch, hosted by the Australian Women’s Club and the Australia & New Zealand Festival of Literature & Arts, McFarlane discussed the thought processes behind her novel and read a passage to the audience. The book is, she said, about many things: ageing and vulnerability; imagination, memory and nostalgia; and even the shadow of colonialism that hangs over the South Pacific.
The Night Guest tells the story of Ruth, an ageing widow whose life in a remote Australian beach house is disrupted when a carer comes to live with her. However this isn’t the only new guest. Ruth begins to hear a tiger prowling around the house, which brings back memories of a childhood spend in Fiji, long ago.
Speaking to Kim Forrester, editor of the blog Reading Matters, McFarlane explained that she deliberately avoided stereotypes when exploring the relationship between carer and cared for. Instead of “a feisty Downton Abbey old woman, or a sweet old lady” she aimed to paint a nuanced portrait which deals with “ideas of ageing, mental decline and memory”. The tiger, which Ruth hears but never sees, doesn’t just reflect her state of mind but her attempts to process the life she has lived. “Ruth’s life in Fiji was extraordinary,” McFarlane said, “but she’s lived an ordinary life since then. She wants something extraordinary at the end.”
McFarlane became interested in memory and nostalgia when writing her PhD thesis, but it wasn’t just this which influenced her work. The idea for the book came from a conversation with a friend who was researching Victorian children’s fiction, in which “exotic animals from far-flung corners of the empire” were common motifs. Eventually, the animal in Ruth’s story came to mean more than that as well. “The tiger represents terror and wonder: the two poles of human experience,” McFarlane explained.
Forrester observed that McFarlane masterfully mirrors Ruth’s own confusion in the language of The Night Guest, which doesn’t draw clear lines between what is ‘real’ and what is imagined. One audience member concurred that the novel was startlingly powerful in its depiction of old age and, in a question and answer session at the end of the book launch, those who had read it were unanimous in their praise.