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Book Review: The Night Guest, by Fiona McFarlane

Book: The Night Guest (2013)

Author: Fiona McFarlane

Review: Back in February 2013, I decided to read and review every short story in The New Yorker each week, as a way to discover new authors and to stay current on at least one vein of contemporary fiction. On a personal level, The Night Guest represents to me that the project is bearing fruit. I discovered Fiona McFarlane via her short story "Art Appreciation" in the May 13, 2013 issue of The New Yorker and have anxiously awaited the chance to read this her debut novel (so anxiously in fact that it took me nearly a year and a half to buy and read it. But, life gets in the way. Anyway...). I can virtually guarantee I never would have heard of McFarlane were it not for my New Yorker reviewing, and I can virtually guarantee I'm not stopping any time soon.

Set in coastal Australia, The Night Guest is the story of Ruth, a widow in her mid-70s living out her days in a little house by the beach where her family used to vacation when her sons were growing up. Ruth's life is simple and solitary until she is surprised by Frida, a government care worker who arrives at her doorstep one day to be her "carer." Ruth slowly adapts to life with Frida -- the good and bad parts -- and has a recurring dream of a tiger visiting her in the night, which she assumes is her subconscious way of accessing childhood memories from her youth spent in Fiji. Ruth is also, as becomes obvious fairly early into the book, suffering from dementia. As far as a plot summary, I think I'll stop right there.

What first attracted me to McFarlane's prose was the careful, deliberate force behind it, which is what I suppose people mean when they say "voice," but it was more than voice. The pacing was right. The evolution of the main character was clear and logical and realistic. The story had structure and a real emotional crescendo that didn't seem forced and didn't seem (most importantly) forced down my throat. She developed deep and familiar emotions in interesting, unique characters and caused me to reflect upon my own life, which is literature at just about it's absolute best.

The Night Guest represents a reasonable first attempt (first published attempt, I should say) to bring that kind of craft from the short story level to the novel length level. McFarlane's clear, consistent voice is still there -- perhaps the best thing about the book -- as she develops the relationship between Ruth and Frida; however, something about the resolution of the plot didn't come off right, as though, once she had the characters and setting in place, she struggled bringing the novel to a climax and then to a close. As a result, the ending felt rushed and robbed of genuine emotion, and the novel felt more like a long, clumsily capped-off short story than a novel.

But really what I mean here is: she hit a double and not a home run. Have I read debut novels that were far, far more amateurish and less satisfying? Yes. Many. The simple fact McFarlane was able to make 200 pages seem like 20 pages is a testament to the readability of her prose and the degree to which she succeeded in getting me invested in the main characters and keeping me there; no matter what, I was finishing this book, I was on board. Why?

McFarlane seems to have a well-polished grasp of how to develop a character through an evenly distributed mix of action, dialogue, internal narration, and exposition. My main complaint about most contemporary mainstream "literature" is the overuse of exposition and and the over-writing of the internal lives of the characters; being told what they're thinking, feeling, and why, and in a self-consciously "pretty" way that reflects the author thinking she's precious rather than attempting to tell a story. And I absolutely cannot stand what I consider to be a hallmark of amateurism: when you can just hear the writer over your shoulder, kvelling at a particular piece of prose that draws attention to how clever they are. In other words, to borrow an idea from Elmore Leonard: if it sounds like writing, it takes attention away from the story.

If McFarlane has one really, really well-honed weapon in her arsenal, it's this: the ability to explore character without over-burdening a story with exposition and without being precious. Her prose is clear, smooth, and quick, and she gets to the point or at least gets to a point and never causes you to feel overly conscious that you're reading a book, which is why her style appeals to me so much.

Right now, I get the sense McFarlane is still trying to figure out whether she wants to be a commercial author or whether she wants to write Literature. Either way, her talent and the market are probably going to decide for her (and a mention on Oprah.com doesn't hurt as far as nudging her toward the commercial side of things). It's also not as if there were a hard and fast line between the two; McFarlane's MFA from University of Texas (one of the top MFA programs in the country) and publications in places like the New Yorker have ensured that she's on the literature "track" but her easy way of telling a complex story is getting her (and may keep her) on the radar screens of the people who can turn books into best-sellers. 

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