At the center of “The Night Guest,” Fiona McFarlane's quiet, unnerving and beautiful first novel, there's a tiger. Ruth, a 75-year-old widow in a coastal Australian town, wakes up in the middle of the night several times, convinced that the animal has entered her house. The reader is less sure. Though Ruth is a crisp, intelligent person, she's also just beginning to live more in the past than the present — not eating enough, letting her late husband's well-ordered garden grow wild.
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Soon, help arrives: Frida, a woman of Fijian origin sent by the government to tidy and cook, though she quickly assumes a more expansive role in Ruth's life. She seems at first to be an ideal companion, tranquil, funny and physically sturdy; they also have Fiji in common, Ruth having grown up there, the daughter of missionary parents. Ruth's sons — scattered away to Hong Kong and New Zealand — are delighted that their mother has help.
Imperceptibly and then inexorably, however, this cheerful figure takes on an air of menace. Much of the sustained drama of "The Night Guest" comes from our uncertainty of whether Frida has begun to take advantage of Ruth — indeed, whether the government sent her at all — or whether Ruth's age and unreliable memory have made her incorrectly suspicious. Regardless, by the time Ruth tells Frida about the tiger and they prepare to take it on, we are more afraid of Frida than the animal.
"What kind of tiger?" Frida asks.
"What kind of tigers are there?" Ruth responds.
That's the question. There are two types of symbolism in fiction. The first is direct and closed to debate: In C.S. Lewis' "Chronicles of Narnia," for instance, Aslan is Jesus, for instance, and there's not much point in searching for anything else in the character. This is in contrast with a second, less certain kind of symbolism, which is open to the fluidities of our interpretation. Does the white whale in "Moby-Dick" represent the madness of revenge? The remorselessness of nature? God? Deployed carelessly, this sort of thing can be exasperating (ask anyone who spent six years watching "Lost"), but used well it has tremendous power, enabling an author to insinuate meaning without insisting upon it and to call upon the oldest archetypes of our civilization — light and dark, self and other.
When a novel risks a large central conceit — the house in Howard's End, for instance — so much rides on its success. McFarlane's tiger might easily have been a heavy-handed symbol, but it remains just peripheral enough, and the possibility of its existence remains just credible enough, that without too much pressure the animal slowly comes to embody a whole multitude of themes raised by Ruth's old age: death, loss, fear, even colonialism. It also represents the problematic blessing of Frida's arrival in her home. To bind up so much meaning in one image effectively is a feat of authorship, and McFarlane's patience and subtlety mean that by the time the reader learns the truth — about Frida, about the tiger — it has almost ceased to matter. There are higher stakes than plot.
This account of "The Night Guest" omits a third character who drifts in and out of the book. He is Richard, a man who nearly became Ruth's lover when they were both young in Fiji. In the intervening decades they've done no more than exchange cards, but now, both widowed, they become lovers.
The depiction of this is restrained and moving. "They'd been young together," McFarlane writes, "and now they were old; because there was nothing in between, this strange telescoping of time gripped Ruth's heart like vertigo." This kind of long separation is a hallmark of Antipodean fiction — think of Shirley Hazzard — and it may be that Australians are more than usually attuned to lapses of time and great distances, to the peril of never seeing a person again, living as they do in a country far from the other Anglophone parts of the world and that is itself so large.
Unfortunately McFarlane attempts to integrate this reunion, which might have stood alone, into the more central mystery of Frida's motivations. The result is clumsy. The book has other imperfections, too, for instance the sporadic portrayal of Ruth's mental decline and a definite novelistic tidiness in its ending.
But broadly speaking "The Night Guest" is a debut of uncommon assurance, so apparently indifferent to the author's own autobiography (she is a young woman) that one feels there must be a drawer somewhere full of abandoned novels that enabled such a leap of imagination and empathy. It seems to rise above the shiny trivia of the last decade's novels, with their male urgency and comic books and underlying mawkishness, and do what serious fiction can: leave you more interested in the world, more conscious of its enigmas of love and memory, than you were before you read it.
Charles Finch is a writer based in Chicago. His first literary novel, "The Last Enchantments," is due out in January.
"The Night Guest"
By Fiona McFarlane, Faber & Faber, 256 pages, $26Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun