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
“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,”
A mesmerizing first novel about trust, dependence, and fear, from a major new writer
Ruth is widowed, her sons are grown, and she lives in an isolated beach house outside of 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 her house, is Ruth right to fear the tiger she hears on the prowl at night, far from its jungle habitat? Why do memories of childhood in Fiji press upon her with increasing urgency? How far can she trust this mysterious woman, Frida, who seems to carry with 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 tale that soars above its own suspense to tell us, with exceptional grace and beauty, about ageing, 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, working wonders with language, renewing our faith in the power of fiction to describe the mysterious workings of our minds.