From the one who “Came to Tea” to Life of Pi, there is a PhD thesis waiting to be written about tigers as a metaphor in fiction. The beast that stalks this unusual Australian literary debut is an imaginary one, but to Ruth, a 75-year-old widow whose two adult sons dutifully watch over her from homes abroad, he’s terrifyingly real. At night she wakes to hear him prowling her isolated beach house in New South Wales and wonders if she’s losing her mind.
A flesh-and-blood threat to Ruth comes in a friendlier disguise. She’s a tall, exotic- looking stranger who arrives out of the blue one morning, introducing herself as Frida, a carer paid for by the government, allocated to assist Ruth with her daily tasks. Cheerful, capable, fascinating and at first kind, Frida soon insinuates her way into Ruth’s spare room and affections. A yellow taxi frequently draws up outside the house, driven by George, whom Frida says is her wayward brother. The reader senses that something sinister is going on – as, initially, does Ruth’s elder son, Jeffrey; but whenever Jeffrey telephones, Frida comes on to the line to reassure him with sensible blandishments. Ruth is doomed gradually to move from her position of independence into the role of confused old dear, with dwindling control over her life.
From this description, it might be gauged that this is a straightforward suspense story about a couple who prey on a vulnerable, well-heeled pensioner. However, the author subverts this, having a more nuanced agenda. Because we experience events through Ruth’s rambling thoughts, what we’re given instead is a sensitive exploration of the workings of time and memory, by turns joyful and sad, and sustained throughout by clear and delicate prose.
We learn that Ruth’s stalwart husband Harry died the year before, soon after they retired to this holiday house, a matter of poignancy. She dwells on the sudden manner of his demise, of a heart attack while out walking, and sometimes feels his reassuring presence. Frida’s exotic appearance looks Fijian to Ruth, and she ruminates on her girlhood in Fiji, as the daughter of missionaries. She remembers the agony of a life-defining event there – her thwarted first love. Soon after Frida’s arrival Ruth invites Richard, the man in question, to stay. He’s now also widowed and they renew their romance in one unexpected and moving scene, but Frida puts paid to this as she does to much else. By night, Ruth’s tiger prowls with ever-growing menace.
Ruth’s viewpoint delivers tremendous insight and empathy, but it has its limitations. As her mental confusion grows, it becomes a challenge to understand and engage with what’s going on. Some questions ultimately remain unanswered. How much of Ruth’s mental deterioration, for instance, would have happened anyway and how much is caused by Frida? Despite this flaw, The Night Guest is a wonderfully evoked portrait of old age that disturbs and elevates in equal measure. The symbolic tiger, frightening, untameable, but awe-inspiring, is an important aspect of its power.