We often lament about life in a perfect world. Well in a perfect world there would be no death, no old age, no hunger- or would there? Of course there would. After a while the place would get over crowded if that was the case. But would people have enough money, food? Would there be no homelessness, crime, cruelty etc. ?
If it really existed could we live in such a wonderful place? Wouldn’t we get sick of it after a while? Well we don’t have to worry about it, our world isn’t totally perfect. We have crime, hunger and war. We have people who prey on the weak because they know they can, owing to the fact that our law is an ass in certain respects and so the indefensible get lost and fall between the cracks of our hulking, overburdened legal systems. This brings us on to this month’s book, it’s The Night Guest by Fiona Mcfarlane.
Ruth is an elderly widow living in New South Wales, Australia. She lives by herself in a small bungalow overlooking the sea and may suffer from the early stages of dementia as she thinks there’s a tiger loose in her house. This is possibly a convoluted memory from her youth growing up in Fiji. She often disturbs her son by calling him in the early hours of the morning to tell him she hears the tiger. One day a yellow cab pulls up outside the house and moments later Frida appears at the back door with a suitcase in tow, telling Ruth the government have sent her to look after her. Initially Ruth accepts this along with her sons. Over time certain strange things start to happen and then Ruth discovers Frida has been living in her spare room. Their relationship goes from one of initial acceptance on Ruth’s part to distrust and subtle hostility, not forgetting the all but non-existent tiger in the midst of this.
This is both an intriguing and harrowing book to read, from the start you really want to see where the whole tiger story line will go (it doesn’t), but then rather quickly it turns into an elderly abuse story line as certain things don’t really add up. The fact that Frida says that the government have sent her to be Ruth’s carer was the first alarm bell for me. Nowhere that I know of, especially in Australia, do the government send carers to elderly people’s private homes. It would cost too much. Especially with the elderly population across the world increasing significantly owing to the increase in life expectancy.
At first you start questioning what’s going on between the two of them and whether anything untoward is happening. After a while though when things become quite obvious you feel helpless to what is going on, especially when Ruth is forced by Frida to withdraw a large sum of money from her account. You are hoping a friend, a neighbour. the bank or even her family will step in and stop this sham. It reminded me of the sexual assault public Service advert on UK TV recently; the young rapist is seen reliving the act again from behind a pane of glass and banging helplessly on it, yelling at his alternate self to stop.
The incident at the bank, was one of the main flaws that came up in the book group discussion, because I would have thought an elderly woman withdrawing a couple of hundred thousand Australian dollars from her bank would ring a few alarm bells, especially if she is presumed by her family to have early signs of dementia. But no, and this is the point at which things start to unravel on both sides.
This is Australian author Macfarlane’s first of two books. The Night Guest was published in 2013 by Hamish Hamilton in Australia and in the UK by Sceptre in 2014, her second book The High Places – a compilation of short stories is due for publication in February 2016.
The book at times had resonances to Lord of The Flies, with Simon, Ralph and Piggy in the form of Ruth and Jack and the grown up boys represented by Frida and the island is the house.
The love interest, if you can call it that is a nice interlude and again you want it to lead to a nice happy ending, but alas again you are left wondering is this just something brought on by either Ruth’s faltering memory or Frida’s possible drugging of Ruth to keep her quiet. The whole book is just like Emma Donoghue’s Room. It’s subject matter is something we’d hate to read about in a newspaper, but have to all too often. As a book though it is the basis of an interesting if at times uncomfortable read, but unlike Room, there isn’t really a happy outcome of sorts.
The book, does leave you with a lot of interesting questions, which led to a healthy debate among the book group especially when you ask yourself the question, is Ruth really suffering from dementia? Could the sons have done more, or are they guilty of neglect? But in the end the real judge and jury is the reader and so off you pop to your local book store or download it and make your own mind up.