Lonely widow Ruth spends her days on the New South Wales coast looking out to sea and remembering her youth as a missionary’s daughter in Fiji and the life she led with her deceased husband Harry. She begins to wake in the night, believing a tiger to be prowling around her house and rings her son who obviously is worried about his mother’s mind. However, all seems to be solved when the larger than life Frida turns up on the doorstep saying she is a government carer sent to look after Ruth in her old age. Ruth starts to feel happy; Frida does take good care of her cleaning the house, washing her hair, cooking her meals… and she also gets in touch with her first love from back when she was a young woman in Fiji. But Frida slowly starts to control more and more aspects of Ruth’s life, and Ruth starts to get more and more confused.
The Night Guest is a contemplative novel which allows the reader to reflect on the nature of memory and ageing. The tension builds slowly and the story is unsettling, not least because you are never entirely sure of what exactly is going on as we are led by Ruth’s failing wits and Frida’s (I don’t think it is too much of a spoiler to say…) untrustworthy assertions.
It was interesting reading this so soon after Elizabeth is Missing (review here) which is similar in that it focusses on an older woman with dementia. Whilst both are excellent and timely pieces, I think I preferred Elizabeth because even though ‘less happens’, it is more dramatic. I realise that sounds a little odd but I hope readers of both books will understand!