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Book Worm: 'The Night Guest' shares harsh truth of growing old

By Kathleen Duncan
Nov. 20, 2013 at 5:20 a.m.
Updated Nov. 25, 2013 at 5:25 a.m.


Ruth awakens one night to the sounds of a tiger in her isolated seaside home. She can hear its breath, heaving in and out. She can almost feel its large, furry body rubbing up against her furniture. As the tiger paces, she is overwhelmed with memories of her childhood in Fiji. She is scared, but she's not. She finally sleeps.

The next day, Frida shows up at Ruth's door. A large, boisterous woman, Frida tells Ruth that she is a government caregiver. A spot opened up, and she is there to help Ruth with daily tasks. Ruth lets her in, and Frida begins to cook and clean around the house. Ruth is widowed, living alone and has back pain, so though she resents the help, she also welcomes it.

Ruth is not stupid, but she is hopeful. Though she knows that there may be aspects to Frida that she is not aware of, she cannot help but hope that Frida is really there to help - that sometimes people are there for others, not just out of necessity but out of the goodness of their hearts.

As the days pass and Frida becomes more ingrained in Ruth's daily life, Ruth's memories of Fiji press more strongly upon her. The tiger returns to haunt her at night. Frida moves into an extra bedroom in Ruth's home. An old swain comes back to visit. Ruth is scared, elated and confused in turn.

"The Night Guest" by Fiona McFarlane explores the descent into old age and the ensuing struggle with dependence, memory and trust.

Ruth's rich, heartbreaking story exposes us to the vulnerability of loneliness and the malleability of memory.

McFarlane's prose is bewitching, drawing us into Ruth's befuddled existence with unapologetic beauty and great sadness.

I admit this book struck me on a very personal level. Over the past couple months, my grandfather has slowly become unable to recognize friends and family members. He broke his leg a few months back, and it became clear after surgery that he'd never return to his house with my grandmother again.

There are good days when he knows what is going on and who he is talking to, and then there are harder days when he doesn't. My grandmother says she thinks he recognizes more than we think he does, so I hold on to that hope - that maybe when I get to see him over Thanksgiving, I'll be able to tell him I love him one last time while he still knows who I am.

In that context, Ruth's story terrified me while also making me grateful that my grandfather has family around him to take care of him, and even if he doesn't know who we are, he knows that we love him.

"The Night Guest" will touch anyone who has felt powerless in his or her own ability to hold on to someone he or she loves. Exquisite, disturbing and incredibly heartrending, Ruth's story will make you want to hold everyone close while you still can.

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