Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Two good books

The Night Guest by Fiona McFarlane The Night Guest (US 1 October 2013, UK 16 January 2014) by Fiona McFarlane

An elderly widow, Ruth, lives alone - except for a couple of demanding cats - in a beach house somewhere in Australia. Here she is largely content with her solitary life, and spends a great deal of time reflecting on the past, particularly her youth in Fiji. This quiet existence is disturbed by two events: Ruth's conviction that she has heard a tiger prowling around her home at night, and the arrival, the next day, of a woman called Frida, who claims to be a government carer sent to help Ruth with household chores. At first, Frida's arrival brings positive changes, particularly when Ruth reconnects with her first love, Richard Porter. However, as Frida begins to exert a more obvious influence over Ruth's life - even moving into her house, despite her protestations - it becomes clear that something is not right about her presence and her intentions towards Ruth.

The Night Guest is a difficult book to review, partly because it is a highly unusual story and partly because it's hard to avoid spoilers when talking about the plot. Although the narrative is in third person, the story is told (largely) from Ruth's point of view, so the reader finds the same things confusing that Ruth does. There is also a hallucinatory quality to some of the story - is Ruth imagining the tiger in her home, or is this a magical tale? It's largely left to the reader to make up his or her own mind, and while this ambiguity could be confusing, it's handled well and retains a good balance throughout the book. Really, it's a traditional mystery wrapped in an unreliable narrator story wrapped in magical realism, and the different layers of interpretation make it constantly intriguing and eerie. For example, it is quickly obvious that there is something mysterious and possibly even threatening about Frida, but it's unclear whether this threat is real and solid or something of a more nebulous variety. I guess there are some fairly obvious holes in the plot, but because the story always keeps its ethereal feel, this doesn't matter as much as it might in a more straightforward novel - or, at least, it didn't matter to me. I also really liked the complexity of the relationship between Ruth and Frida: although it's difficult not to be incredibly suspicious of Frida, there's more depth to the character than you might expect, she's not simply a devious antagonist. McFarlane has also taken an unconventional route by using Ruth, whose thoughts and memories may not be accurate, as the narrator rather than Frida, the insidious newcomer. This is a great debut - a familiar type of story told in a very original way.

Rating: 8/10 | Pre-order on Amazon: Kindle

The Language of Dying by Sarah Pinborough The Language of Dying (5 December 2013) by Sarah Pinborough

This novella is a quick and easy, but very effective and powerful, read. It is told from the point of view of a woman whose father is dying of cancer; she addresses her narrative to him as she gathers together her siblings for his last days. Despite this being a short book, a great deal of characterisation and detail is packed in: about the narrator's relationship with her father; her difficulties in coping with his physical decline, and the awful reality of caring for him; her own emotional struggles, including an abusive marriage; and the lives of her brothers and sisters, from an impossibly perfect, 'glowing' older sister to twin brothers who have both suffered greatly, one with mental illness and the other with drug addiction and alcoholism. However, the narrator is also haunted by the occasional appearance of a very particular apparition, one she has seen at several significant points during her life. She is still not sure whether this vision is real or a product of her imagination, but on a night that may be the last of her father's life, she can't help but keep watch for it.

Given the brevity of the story, it's remarkable how effectively Pinborough manages to portray the different members of the family in such a way that you build a clear mental picture of each of them. Some of their characteristics are hammered home a bit too heavily - the thing about Penny's 'glow' really doesn't need repeating a hundred times - but they are all well-rounded and realistic. I'm not familiar with Pinborough's other work but I gather she has written various fantasy and horror novels; indeed, I believe The Language of Dying was first published independently four years ago, and has recently been re-published in mass-market format (with an absolutely stunning cover illustration. Why don't more books look like this?) This book has really impressed me, and made me interested in checking out some of her others. The narrator is never actually named, yet is beautifully, sympathetically drawn; and the fantasy content is woven seamlessly into the story, and doesn't seem at all out of place. Really, this is the sort of book that could be placed in the same category as The Night Guest. It is fantastical, but also a very familiar, human story which is undeniably moving.

Rating: 7/10 | Buy on Amazon: Kindle & Hardback

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