Friday, 6 March 2015

Tiger tiger burning bright

The Night Guest by Fiona McFarlane is a very clever first novel and a real page turner.

However there are lots of questions arising from this story many of which we couldn't answer during our very pleasant evening discussing it. We also tried to answer some online questions from the Penguin website which was a first for our group.

Basically the story is about Ruth, a lady in her seventies living independently in her own home, probably on the south coast and beginning to contend with mental issues associated with getting older. The appearance of the tiger is a 'mechanism' for showing Ruth's stress levels. Also her early swearing is indicative of a problem for this well brought up woman. She is after all a daughter of a missionary doctor who would not have sworn at all during her early life.

Early on in the novel a carer appears in the guise of Frida and the story takes off. Some of us were suspicious of Frida from this moment on while others were not so quick to judge. We were all aware that there were 'age' issues for Ruth from the beginning. The author jumps into the story immediately showing how vulnerable Ruth is and how lacking in assistance and family companionship. One of her sons living in New Zealand is an early character but is totally devoid of real input into the life of his mother from such a distance. A phone call is hardly sufficient for an old lady's welfare. We felt he should have done more.

So much occurs in Ruth's head that the boundaries of real and imagined are difficult to work out. About half way through the book Frida starts to make extra demands and it is also the time when Ruth's friend Richard starts to dominate her thinking.

Ruth's house is also important. Is it a prison or a sanctuary? This is a hard question as we don't know what is happening exactly. Was Ruth locked in or was she bananas? This is shown particularly when Ruth thinks Frida has locked her in.

The landscape is an important factor in Ruth's life as she is so isolated from friends and family -- but enjoys the view when she can and expects others to enjoy it. Many of us felt we knew parts of the coast where the story could be set.

How much can Ruth rely on Frida? Very little we decided but Ruth is not really given the opportunity to think the situation through until it is too late. We also agreed that the story is typical of what can really happen to the elderly.

Frida shows that she is lacking in compassion although she is somewhat sympathetic at times -- for example, washing Ruth's hair before Richard visits. We thought Frida probably had narcissistic personality disorder.

Does the tiger 'prefigure' the future guests? Frida and Richard? I don't think so as it is more to show how Ruth is feeling at the time when these people are about to intrude into her life.

We saw similarities in the novel --  The life of Pi -- Richard Parker is the name of the tiger! In this earlier novel the tiger is a presence -- with a love/hate relationship with the main character. Both this character and Ruth try hard to 'survive' the tiger.

Was Frida's hairstyle changes indicative of anything? Could it be part of the conspiracy?  Or was it innocent? Frida's appearance as a partly Maori woman -- certainly a person from the Islands was a happy co-incidence as far as Ruth was concerned as it brought back happy memories for her. It also reinforced her desire to see her first 'love' -- the young doctor Richard. Some of us didn't like the young Richard finding him insipid and lacking humility. For instance, he showed very Protestant values in not liking Ruth's father's washing of feet on Good Friday. He also thought he could do a lot of good with the Indian women but we didn't hear any more about that.

We felt that Ruth's current relationship with Richard was overall positive for her and it was a great pity that his letters were not delivered to her. She was greatly cheated of a good old age with him if Frida hadn't intervened.

We also discussed the ending --  Frida is an unusual character in that she is not only guilt ridden by her behaviour to Ruth but she does something about it.

Did Frida leave Ruth in the tiger trap? How could she do this after being her carer?  The clever writing leaves the reader undecided whether it is Ruth who is unclear about her position; or whether Frida was planning that Ruth would be OK.  Did Ruth die of exposure? Was Frida a victim? She was George's victim but she did have a choice whereas Ruth did not have a choice. Frida was a 'con artist'. Why did the bank allow Ruth's money be taken out by someone else ?  

The book is exquisitely crafted and really makes you feel what it must be like to have some level of dementia. Fiona McFarlane is very clever using the third person subjective.

How did we come to read it? Sue had heard that it was awarded great accolades so it was worthy of our attention. We agreed it was very worthy. It also brought up memories of another novel about old age -- Reunion by Andrea Goldsmith.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks Sylvia. We certainly covered a lot didn't we? I should add that another reason we read it was because Kate had read it and thought it would be interesting for us to discuss.

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