I received a free copy of this ebook to review from NetGalley, on behalf of the publisher. It will be released 1 October 2013.
Fiona McFarlane begins The Night Guest with a frightened older woman, Ruth, calling her distant son to tell him that she thought she heard a tiger in her house the night before. She’s vulnerable, but determined not to make a fuss. She’s over the older generation, trained to show the world nothing but acceptable emotions and a stiff upper lip. The next morning, however, Frida Young shows up and introduces herself as a government carer. She’ll only be there for an hour a day, helping keep the house in order, making sure that Ruth takes her pills for her back, maybe do a little shopping.
Within a few chapters, we learn that Frida is not exactly the Mary Poppins of hospice care. She’s pushy, perhaps a little manipulative. But Ruth has been living alone with her cats and back pain for years, she could use a little help with the things she’s let slide over the years. Frida soon stays for three hours a day. Then she stays overnight to help Ruth when Ruth has an old flame visit her house. For a while, I thought perhaps Ruth needed a little pushing. She’s not as spry as she used to be. Her sense of independence and her reluctance to cause a fuss might be doing more harm than good. Sure, Frida’s not particularly nice, but does she really need to be?
It becomes clear, right around the time that Ruth’s friend Richard visits, that Frida is abusing Ruth’s trust. Frida lies to Ruth about things Ruth has allegedly forgotten. Ruth’s mind and memory gets increasingly fuzzy and Frida takes advantage. It’s heart breaking to watch Frida run rings around Ruth. Ruth’s children are far away, as is her rediscovered friend. Frida has a ready answer for any questions people direct at her. McFarlane walks a careful balance between gaslighting and natural, elderly decline. Until the end, it’s hard to say for sure what’s going on.
The ending of The Night Guest broke my heart. This book is terrifically written. It’s a little slow at the beginning, I’ll admit. But you need to go with it. This isn’t a traditional thriller, but it’s more effective for all that. The first third of the book introduces you to the characters; it builds up your sympathy for Ruth. Because it doesn’t follow the patterns set by the genre, the ending comes as a surprise–and a deeply affecting one at that.