The Night Guest is frightening on so many levels: the slow disintegration of a mind through age and stress; the malicious intentions of another; the ghost that comes to life in isolation. In the slow and deliberate examination of Ruth Field’s life five years after the death of her husband, Harry, McFarland describes the nighttime fears and daily accommodations of a woman alone at seventy-five, conscious of the slippage of time but still vital, though often distracted by memories of the past from her marriage and grown sons to the early years with missionary parents in Fiji.
At this point, Ruth’s main concerns are her bad back and her son’s patience when she calls in the middle of the night after “hearing a tiger in the house.” Ruth knows the tiger is a figment of her imagination, but worries that it portends something to come, a warning of sorts. Living alone in the beachside cottage where she and Harry moved after his retirement, Ruth has fallen into the habit of allowing decisions to be made without benefit of logic, a silly game she has perfected: “Ruth was caught up in consequence.” If two cars pass, she will sweep the path; if the waves crest three times, she will call her son. So when a stranger appears at the end of the drive in a taxi, Ruth reverts to the familiar, lulled into passivity by the rhythms of the ocean and the unhurried pace of her existence.
Change arrives in the person of Frieda Young, a tall, fortyish woman who greets Ruth in the Fijian style, announcing herself as sent by the government as a part-time carer. Lugging a large suitcase, Frieda schedules herself to work an hour a day, leaving with the arrival of her brother’s taxi at the end of the drive. Soon one hour grows to three. Frieda becomes overly familiar, domineering even, her moods the barometer of Ruth’s days: “Oh Ruthie, what would you do without me?” Reluctant at first, Ruth is gradually seduced by the convenience of Frieda’s efforts, growing more dependent and used to the woman’s company if not enamored of her tendency to override objections. Ruth’s former independence is quietly usurped by the stranger, and Ruth’s son is pacified that his mother is being cared for, if not quite comfortable with the circumstances.
Acclimating to her changed situation, Ruth becomes more confused, more likely to be cajoled into cooperation, her small disobediences controlled by intimidation, mockery and the gradual undermining of her confidence. This frightening scenario has the taste of doom for the sheltered daughter of missionaries, the security of marriage leaving Ruth unprepared for an unanticipated assault on her contentment. The tiger of Ruth’s fears is no longer a figment of her nighttime imagination. Her temporary carer is ensconced in her son’s childhood room, her simple life stalked by a predator grown more menacing by the day. The increasing stress begets confusion. Ruth instinctively rebels but is undercut by her physical frailty, an old woman putatively losing her mind, if Frieda is to be believed. McFarlane explores the terrain of aging, the vagaries of memory, the body’s concessions to time and the vulnerability of an elderly woman alone. Menace arrives in the form of assistance, pitiless in the face of opportunity, a terrible end to a quiet life spent perhaps too long in the habit of accommodation. It is a shattering, tragic scenario.