Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 30, 2013

The Night Guest (2013), by Fiona McFarlane

The Night GuestThe Night Guest is the first novel of Sydney author Fiona McFarlane, and it’s a promising debut in the popular psychological thrillers genre.  It’s the story of an elderly widow living alone in a coastal holiday house, and the carer who comes to stay with her.

There are two sons, fond, but absent.  There is an old boyfriend who lives in Sydney, but he’s not willing to disrupt his own life.  If Ruth ever had a network of friends like most women do, she lost them when she and Harry made their holiday house their retirement home.  Other characters who flit in and out of Ruth’s life are too busy with their own families, or are phony friends like The Sausage King whose flirtatious friendship evaporates when Ruth’s purse is empty.

So Ruth is isolated and vulnerable.  On the day that she wakes up believing that a tiger has been in her house overnight, a woman called Frida arrives on the doorstep.  She’s from the government, she says, and she’s here to help.

The most interesting elements of this novel derive from Ruth’s memories of life in Fiji, where her parents were missionaries.  This back story establishes her struggle to resolve ‘being good’ with meeting her own needs.  She becomes an acquiescent, ‘low-maintenance’ adult with unmet yearnings, a character whose fears erupt as she drifts into confused old age.

The Night Guest traces the chasm of old age, into which most of us will fall.  It explores memory, reality, frailty, and vulnerability.   Most of all it ponders the fraught territory that the children of ageing parents all have to deal with: respecting their independence while guarding their interests.   While these aspects of the novel gave it some gravitas, it failed to grip me as a psychological thriller should because it was always so obvious what was going to happen.  And the epilogue tidying up the loose ends is Women’s Weekly banal: it would have been better left to the reader to unravel it.

Other reviews are at Still Not FussedCannonball 5 (with a rebuttal in the comments), and The Monthly.

©Lisa Hill

Author: Fiona McFarlane
Title: The Night Guest
Publisher: Penguin, 2013
ISBN: 9781926428550
Source: Review copy courtesy of Penguin Australia


Fishpond: The Night Guest


  1. Yes, I agree Lisa – there were missed opportunities here: It did raise important questions about the vulnerability of the elderly, though!


    • Yes, that’s true, though I think that the Rodney Hall’s Love Without Hope treated the same theme with more sophistication. That’s not a criticism of McFarlane, she’s a young writer starting out and Hall is a Miles Franklin winner with a long career as one of Australia’s best authors. He has a lifetime’s experience meeting all sorts of people from all walks of life to draw on in his characterisation. Have you read his recent collection of ‘fictions’ called Silence? It’s superb. (Come to think of it, *tapping foot impatiently* aren’t we due for another novel from him? )


  2. […] Margo Lanagan: Sea Hearts (Allen & Unwin) Fiona McFarlane: The Night Guest (Penguin Books) see my review Margaret Merrilees: The First Week (Wakefield Press) see my review Drusilla Modjeska: The Mountain […]


  3. […] at ANZLitLovers didn’t enjoy it as much as I did. I agree that it doesn’t really work as a psychological thriller, which is how some of the […]


  4. I’ve just written my review and I must say I did enjoy it. I was perturbed, when I picked up my copy to see several reviewers describe it as a psychological thriller because that’s not by preferred fare, but as I was reading it, I kept waiting for the suspense. It was pretty clear where it was going (though occasionally the “suspense” categorisation made me wonder whether I was wrong!!) so I decided that the psychological suspense descriptions were more promotional than real. I felt that this book had a lot to get one’s teeth into.


    • LOL I’ve had this happen before, I remember reading some other debut novelist whose blurb was plastered with Psychological Thriller tags and it was nothing of the sort. It was an ok book in other ways but I felt let down because of the expectations the blurb aroused.
      The Night Guest is certainly playing in the psychological sandpit, and I thought that aspect of it was well done (except for the ending, enough said about that) but like you say, it affects the reading if you’re expecting suspense and there isn’t any.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I think the best thing is to avoid blurbs altogether. I rarely read them – andavoid reading advanced reviews. It means I often have no idea what a book is about until I start it. This one, though, there was a blurb calling it a “witty psychological thriller” on the page opposite the title page and I unfortunately glanced at it. However, when I looked at all the blurbs now – I have the small format paperback and it has about 4 pages of them – only a few of them describe it that way.

        I didn’t really mind the ending. I would have been happy if it had ended at the previous chapter but I liked that we met the sons and got Ellen’s perspective. And the cats’ perspectives too!


        • I try not to read blurbs too, but I think my brain absorbs them through peripheral vision or something. And if a book is inescapably hyped then its labels attach themselves to the book no matter how you’ve tried to avoid it. Can’t be helped I suppose.

          BTW I like my cover better than the one you read. It’s stealthier! (I haven’t got the book any more to see who the designer was).


          • Yes, I like that first cover too. Haha re peripheral vision … it is hard to avoid at times I agree.


  5. […] a design by Christabella Designs which is reminiscent of the cover of Fiona McFarlane’s The Night Guest.  What is it about tigers, in the Australian context, I […]


  6. […] for the best novel published in Australia in 2013 was Fiona McFarlane for The Night Guest.  (See my review).   In 2015 the winner was Elizabeth Harrower  for her novel In Certain Circles (Text […]


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