The Night Guest AUTHOR: FIONA MCFARLANE
The Night Guest, Fiona McFarlane’s striking debut novel, has been shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Award and was the winner of the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards’ 2014 UTS Glenda Adams Award for New Writing.
It’s a gripping story of love, dependence, fear and the end of a life.
Q & A With Fiona McFarlane conducted by Penguin Books
What made you want to write The Night Guest?
I began with a situation: a woman wakes in the night thinking there’s a tiger in her lounge room. That idea came out of a conversation I had with a friend who was researching Victorian nursery rhymes. There are lots of lions, crocodiles and particularly tigers in children’s literature, and it was fascinating to think their presence had something to do with the British Empire: all these wild beasts, exotic and terrifying, erupting in the safe space of the Victorian nursery. So I wanted my tiger-woken woman to have some kind of colonial background, which is why Ruth, my main character, is the child of missionary doctors and grew up in Fiji. The tiger she hears in the night is a sort of haunting: a dying empire haunting itself. My grandmothers both suffered from dementia, so I was interested in writing, closely and respectfully, a mind as it comes undone with age. Frida, Ruth’s majestic carer, came out of a story I heard about an elderly man whose cleaner convinced him they were actually married; you hear so many stories about disastrous care for the elderly, and I was interested in this vulnerability and danger.
Are there any parts of the book that have special personal significance to you?
I promised my brother I’d include a piece of Halley’s Comet memorabilia in my first book, and it’s there in chapter 12: a Halley’s Comet poster. He and I were in primary school when Halley’s Comet visited our skies, and the nightly watch for the comet – in our Sydney backyard and on a special trip to the country – made a great impression on me. Everything felt more important, rarer, with a comet around. I also have a fondness for the South Coast Sausage King, who’s based on an actual butcher and is probably the character in the novel most drawn from life.
What was one of the most surprising things you learned in creating your book?
I was fascinated to read about newer models of dementia care in which a patient’s alternative realities – as long as they’re positive and harmless – are taken seriously and encouraged rather than ignored or corrected. The aging mind is such a complicated thing, and this treatment wouldn’t be right for everyone, but there’s so much potential for compassion and imagination in this approach.