Skip to main content

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 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. 


Popular posts from this blog

New Yorker Fiction Review #151: "The Bog Girl" by Karen Russell

From the June 20 issue...

My loyal readers (if there are still any, which I doubt) will know I'm usually not a fan of Magical Realism, which, as you may also know, is Karen Russell's stock in trade. That said, there's nothing I love more than having my antipathy for magical realism shattered by an awesome story like "The Bog Girl."

Briefly, an Irish teenager discovers the body of a young woman who as been buried in a bog for over 2,000 years and begins to date her. What more do you need, right? If I'd read that one-line description somewhere else, and wasn't on a mission to review every New Yorker short story, I doubt I'd have read "The Bog Girl." But maybe I should start doing a George Costanza and do the opposite of everything I think I should do.

Where Russell succeeds here is in two main areas: 1.) Making us really love Cillian, the teenager who falls in love with the bog girl, and 2.) pulling the unbelievable trick making the characters…

Holiday Q&A, Volume 1

These questions come to us from Grace. Thanks for sending your questions!! Answers below:
What is the most thrilling mystery you have read and/or watched?
The Eiger Sanction (book and film) by Trevanian is what's coming to mind. International espionage. Mountain-climbing assassins. Evil albino masterminds. Sex. Not a bad combination. Warning, this is completely a "guy" movie, and the film (feat. Clint Eastwood) is priceless 70s action movie cheese. But in case that's your thing...
What's the deal with Narcos?
Narcos is a Netflix show about the rise and fall (but mostly the fall) of Columbian cocaine kingpin Pablo Escobar. Thus far there are two seasons of 10 episodes each. RIYL: The film Blow, starring Johnny Depp; the book Zombie City, by Thomas Katz; the movie Goodfellas; true crime; anything involving the drug trade. My brief review: Season 1 started out a bit slow and I know a bunch of people who never made it past the first few episodes. Some of the acting is a…

A Piece of Advice I Learned From My Grandfather

My grandfather was one of the most learned men I know. He read widely and voraciously, and not just in the sciences (he was a doctor); he loved politics, philosophy, and great literature as well. Whenever he finished a book he would write his thoughts about the book in the front cover and then sign and date it. To this day every once in a while I will open a book from my bookshelf or my mother's bookshelf, or at one of my family members' homes, and there will be my grandfather's handwriting. He was also a great giver of his books; if you remarked that you liked a particular one or wanted to read it, you were almost sure to take it home with you.

Reading is a very solitary pursuit but my grandfather was not a solitary person. He relished having family and friends around him which is convenient because he was blessed with a lot of both. And he carried out his intellectual life in a very "public" way as well. He was, in some ways, an intellectual evangelist. If he r…