I write about Australian life because it fascinates and moves me

The Night Guest

Fiona McFarlane is an Australian writer. The Night Guest is her first novel.

The invisible presence of the tiger gives an eerie tone to the novel. It is also a recurrent figure in children’s stories. What would be the relation between The Night Guest and Rudyard Kipling’s stories? 

The Night Guest grew directly out of the presence of tigers in children’s stories. I was talking with a friend about the research she was doing on Victorian children’s literature, and she mentioned how often wild animals – lions, bears, elephants, and particular tigers – appeared in the rhymes and tales she was studying. I was so fascinated by the idea of these exotic, terrifying colonial beasts threatening the safe space of the British nursery that I decided to write about a modern house – ordinary, safe – unsettled by the presence of a nursery tiger. Kipling’s Shere Khan is, of course, the ultimate children’s literary tiger, and Ruth thinks of him when she hears the tiger in her house: she read The Jungle Book in her own colonial childhood.
As Ruth grows wary of Frida, the reader does too. As a writer, how do you work with suspense?

Most of the revision I did on The Night Guest had to do with the sequence of events and the revelation of information: everything that shapes suspense for the reader. I knew how important this was, not because I think of the novel primarily as a tale of twists and turns (although in many ways it is), but because of how closely I wanted the reader to follow the unravelling of Ruth’s understanding. This is very hard to do, as a writer, from within a novel you know so intimately. At this stage, it was essential to have feedback from my editors and a few trusted readers who were approaching the material for the first time.
The reader is taken between Ruth’s childhood memories of Fiji and the major part of her life she spent in Australia. You have recently been nominated for the Miles Franklin Award, which rewards a work of fiction which “presents Australian life in any of its phases”. Was it one of your intentions when you set out to write this novel?

The Miles Franklin is a wonderful prize, Australia’s most prestigious literary award, and it’s a tremendous honour to have been nominated. But I do think it’s rather a shame that only works of fiction which “present Australian life” are considered for a prize of this significance; there are so many excellent Australian books that aren’t about Australia. I write about Australian life because it fascinates and moves me, because I understand its smells and colours and anxieties and joys better than any other kind of life, but I don’t expect to be limited to it in future books.
What is left unsaid seems to take as much room as what is said, such as the tiger lingering in Ruth’s mind. Do you think that unspoken territory is more interesting than its counterpart?

I think all territory is interesting – what’s spoken and done can be utterly mysterious and fascinating. But it’s true that in The Night Guest, it’s the piecing together of everything that’s left out – everything Ruth misses or misunderstands – that I find most compelling.
Is Ruth Fields inspired by anyone you know or any situation you might have witnessed?

Ruth is entirely fictional, although her situation was inspired in part by a story my mother told me about a friend’s father. Unfortunately, you hear tales of this kind, and read about them in the news, so often: elderly people taken advantage of, injured or robbed or swindled. I do have family experience with dementia, and wanted to write about it with respect and without sentimentality.

Editorial reviews (4 reviews)

The Night Guest is a confident and engaging debut that poignantly depicts the final act of a life, the memories and loves that can (and can’t) be regained, and the mysterious visitor that we all become, eventually, to ourselves.

One certitude about “The Night Guest” is that it’s a superb first novel that investigates the terrors — both extraordinary and mundane — of old age.

A pleasurable novel, with turns of plot and phrase both startling and elegant.