Once upon a time, the imaginary was part of the everyday. Gods, monsters, spirits looked over our shoulders, went bump in the night, and progressed in pigment along the rock walls of caves. Even with the advent of the great monotheistic religions, the world of the spiritual co-existed with the mundane. Ghosts walked, holy icons linked directly to the saints they depicted, and people left milk out for the pixies. The unseen world was not only fare for the spirit, but matter for art – and that included works of literature.
It might be argued that the Enlightenment, in its privileging of the rational over the spiritual world, influenced the new form of the novel, which expressed, as it properly should, the zeitgeist. But in truth, the most popular early novels were gothic, which in the hands of Monk Lewis and his cronies could be a riot of angels and demons, as well as depravity. Similarly, the didactic novel set impossibly unrealistic standards of personal conduct for its heroes and heroines. That the ideal subject of the novel was unadorned reality depicted with exactitude was by no means an orthodoxy – although it would become one.
In Adam Bede (1859) George Eliot wrote: ‘The pencil is conscious of a delightful facility in drawing the griffin – the longer the claws, and the larger the wings the better, but that marvelous facility which we mistook for genius is apt to mistake us when we want to draw a real unexaggerated lion.’ Eliot was making a plea for observing the reality of the small, flawed life, rather than depicting the ideal. Her claim that it is hardest to depict the truth became a tenet of literary realism, and thus integral to the self-importance of various well-known novelists. Novels that incorporate frankly speculative or fantastic elements have tended ever since to be rated more lowly – though there are some notable exceptions. Six years later, Lewis Carroll had no problem drawing a gryphon among the other denizens of Alice’s Wonderland. His genius, like Eliot’s, is undoubted; but he also crossed the border between adults’ and children’s writing, where the fantastic has an accepted niche.
Eliot’s reaction to Game of Thrones can only be imagined – spinning in her crinoline? The truth is, however, as George R. R. Martin, Ursula Le Guin and others have shown, that fantastic creatures may be delightful for the reader, but they are hardly facile creations. It is never facile to make a reader suspend a healthy disbelief. To draw a dragon convincingly, particularly when there are so many variations on the theme, is hard brain-work. Just because the subject is imaginary does not preclude it from genius – as much as any other type of writing, when done extremely well.
Australian literature may have its rainbow serpents, but it is a little short on dragons, except within genre fiction. Yet the nation’s writing began in the penumbra of the gothic. That mode provided a way for the newly arrived Europeans to interpret a landscape and fauna that were totally alien – as uncanny, eerie. Its significant early influence has never really disappeared; it is evident in writers as diverse as Marcus Clarke and Barbara Baynton, Gillian Mears and Kaaron Warren. Even in popular magazine fiction, the sense of unease behind the triumphant colonialist narrative could be expressed in a surprising number of stories that are variations on the theme of ghostly indigenous revenge, as collected by anthologists of the weird, such as James Doig, Ken Gelder and Rachael Weaver.
In twentieth and even twenty-first century Australian literature, the fantastic has been regarded as somewhat disreputable, though there have been notable protests. It is now over half a century since Patrick White bewailed ‘dreary dun-coloured’ realism, and four decades since the appearance of Peter Carey’s strange, delicate first stories, which even included unicorns. Still, the Australian fiction factory remains a peculiar bastion of realism. Certainly, that is the genre in which most of the major literary award winners are situated. It takes the potent factor of overseas recognition, still significant with the ongoing cultural cringe, to make a writer of the non-realistic respectable, as with Margo Lanagan and her World Fantasy awards. Last year, Lanagan also figured in the shortlist of the first Stella Prize; this year, so does Fiona McFarlane’s debut novel The Night Guest.
In the current parlous state of the Australian publishing industry, in recovery from the GFC and assailed by the e-book, a debut novel represents an act of faith. The success of such novels is certainly not common enough to provide career paths for all the aspiring authors emerging from creative writing courses across the nation. However, The Night Guest has justified the faith, with favourable reviews, the waratah cup of the Stella shortlisting, and more recently longlisting for the Miles Franklin Award.
In a crowded market and with limited resources, positioning is key. McFarlane has suitable academic and creative writing credentials, including a Michener fellowship at the University of Texas in Austin – one of only twelve awarded each year. And Kate Atkinson was an inspired choice to supply a cover endorsement: she is an author with similarities, notably quirkiness and a stylistic lightness of touch. The Night Guest is not only a book Atkinson appreciated, but one her substantial audience will likely enjoy too. And, finally, to get to a delayed point, the novel also partakes of elements of the fantastic, mingling elements of the magical with its realism.
The Night Guest does not, however, belong to the genre of Magical Realism. When the likes of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Isabel Allende first burst into the English-speaking world’s literary consciousness, their work appeared like a traveller from the pre-Enlightenment among all the Social, Kitchen Sink and Dirty Realism. The key literary technique of Magical Realism was to present a universe stranger than we could imagine, but so utterly convincing it defied any sort of explanation.
In the case of The Night Guest, the fantastic element is the appearance of a tiger in a small Australian coastal town – and no, it is not the thylacine reanimated, nor an escapee from a circus. There is an explanation for McFarlane’s tiger which is entirely realist, and also achingly sad. The mind is the centre of our consciousness but it is not entirely rational: we can experience dreams as vividly, or even more vividly than our waking hours (particularly if our lives happen to be boring); and we can hallucinate in periods of drug-induced intoxication or physical extremity. Sufferers from macular degeneration experience precise visions, as the eye seeks to cope with its deterioration. Similarly, with the onset of dementia, the beloved dead can apparently briefly return – as depicted onscreen to devastating effect in Iron Lady (2011), as a device to draw the life of Margaret Thatcher via her relationship with her husband Denis, who appears as a non-ghostly revenant.
Why a tiger, who arrives at night and prowls around the house of elderly widowed Ruth? Why not, the answer might well be, particularly since the tiger is followed by other visitants: an old boyfriend of similar dotage, and Frida, a woman of such force of character that she has the intensity of a dream. At Adelaide Writers’ Week 2014, an audience member asked McFarlane if the tiger represented death. McFarlane did not seem surprised at the query. She did not deny the reading and spoke of the role of animals in nineteenth century children’s tales as an influence. Yet she did not completely endorse the reading either. That the tiger is a psychopomp or harbinger of death is plausible, though it would appear to admit multiple interpretations.
The character of Frida could, in other hands, have become deeply problematic. Ruth is the child of medical missionaries, who has grown up in Fiji. In her lifetime, she has thus seen the colonial become post-colonial, Little Black Sambo give way to polite PC. When Frida arrives, Ruth’s initial impression is that Frida might be a child of her father’s patients, someone who has been the recipient of white medicine and religion. The basis for this assumption is the colour of Frida’s skin, which is darker than Ruth’s, although others do not think Frida looks Fijian. Frida is simply non-white and of lower class than Ruth, though with hidden aspirations to be something better.
In her discussion with American author Rachel Kushner at Adelaide Writers’ Week, McFarlane described Frida as ‘the haunting of an empire by itself’. Frida represents the post-colonial rampant, though in this context she is initially convenient: an answer to, if not prayers, then a call for assistance. Here the roles of coloniser and colonised are reversed. Frida is not the object of colonial charity or ministry. She has come to care for Ruth as a governmental help – for does not this old lady live on her own, isolated, with her children geographically distant and perturbed by her late night phone calls about a tiger in the house?
Frida arrives in a taxi, with the force of a whirlwind. She cleans madly, supervises Ruth’s food and medication, and soon takes over the older woman’s life. Ruth, who is already disengaged from the town’s community, becomes increasingly dependent on Frida. Another writer might have let the novel stay this course, as a closely observed character study of two women, with or without a tiger. The result would most likely have been depressing. It would almost certainly have been buoyed by language rather than plot – something that only very skilled writers can make truly compelling. But McFarlane is not content to be predictable. Having mingled two genres already, the realist and the fabulist (probably the best descriptor here), she then introduces another, quite seamlessly. The novel mutates into a narrative that is increasingly sinister, with a mystery at its core.
There is subterfuge, smuggling, in the writing of The Night Guest. It imports ‘genre’ techniques into the genre ‘literary’. To achieve the necessary suspension of disbelief, the tiger displays no magic, does not talk. It is depicted with extreme realism. At first, it appears at the edge of Ruth’s perception, unseen, not rousing her sleeping pet cats on the end of the bed. She hears it, and it sounds exactly how a big cat confined in a living room would. The other genre-blending involves a style of writing not usually associated with fabulism: the crime thriller. McFarlane is most definitely not trying to write a pulp nailbiter. Rather, she is introducing into Ruth’s mundane world the unease that the reader might usually associate with novels of psychological suspense by Patricia Highsmith or the superb Australian writer Pat Flower.
The ambiguity of perception is key. Is Frida really acting suspiciously, or is Ruth just an over-sensitive old lady? Ruth, after all, cannot trust the evidence of her senses anymore, not when she has recurring visits from a tiger. At the heart of this novel, McFarlane is describing a very sad and inevitable situation, one that even the highest in the land properly fear: to be old and helpless, and potentially someone else’s prey. Yet who is the predator: the imaginary beast or the post-colonial haunter? Here is domestic realism, the beach hamlet acutely observed, but with a resident tiger, secrets, lies, and a very banal but nonetheless venal conspiracy.
Then, to enliven the mix even more, McFarlane introduces a touching autumnal romance. The arrival of Frida leads Ruth to consider her early life in Fiji, which includes reliving her first love affair. Richard was a colonial doctor, like Ruth’s father, but not for reasons of Christianity. He was, if not actually Marxist, a bit pink. Hardly a suitable mate for the daughter of a missionary – unless she could ‘turn’ him. But Ruth did not have the strength of character, being a passive ‘good’ girl. The pair flirted decorously, but Richard was already secretly engaged to Kioko, a Japanese, something outrageous in the post-World War II period. Ruth recognised her essential differences from Richard, with his strong opinions on what is Good Art and his activism. When she met her husband Harry, they recognised their mutual lack of complexity, a certain shared complacency, and eased into a happy, long marriage.
But now that Richard and Ruth are both widowed, Ruth begins to think of him at more than Christmas card time. She summons him, he visits, they even achieve sex. The gooseberry is Frida, who acts none too subtly to prick any passion away. She has taken it upon herself to move in, so surreptitiously that Ruth has not even noticed. So Richard will not stay, though Ruth needs him.
Richard gone, the relationship between carer and cared-for becomes closer, even claustrophobic. Frida locks Ruth inside the house, hides her pills, helps herself to a box of curios belonging to Ruth’s father. Boundaries are being crossed, territory invaded. With this gradual loss of control comes more surprises: Ruth now thinks she can smell the tiger, sense its hairs on the furniture. Frida initially humours her in this fancy, then suddenly declares that she can see the tiger too, that it has scratched her. Because Frida is nothing if not determined, she sets traps for the tiger, even claims to have killed it. One night, Ruth can hear a battle royal outside. Frida comes in triumphant, bloodied. It seems she has been successful, the tiger has been vanquished and tipped like rubbish into the sea.
The novel may resemble the stuff of nightmare at this point, but McFarlane has further surprises in store. Frida may be a liar, a thief and a bully, but she is capable of great tenderness. What develops between the two women is almost a Stockholm Syndrome in reverse. The usual situation is that the captive comes to identify with the captor, for reasons that begin with pure survival, but become deeper and more complex over time. In this novel, the captor ultimately comes to care, beyond mercenary play-acting, for the frail, defenceless creature she had originally intended no good. This point is subtle and interesting; it shows, perhaps more than anything else, that McFarlane is no ordinary young novelist.
Not many debut novelists make you think about technique by deploying it with such sophistication. This aspect of the book is particularly evident in its ending. McFarlane has to bring the narrative to a close and she has a lot of information to impart and threads to tie up. She could try for a mystery ending, with all revealed, or an equally conventional realist literary conclusion. Or, daringly, she could do both. The trick is to integrate them successfully. Thus the revelation of Frida’s perfidy is refracted through Ruth’s failing brain: she cannot understand what is happening to her. She only knows that Frida is leaving, and that she is in no state to be left alone. The novel ends, with a return to its beginnings: the tiger, arisen from the dead. Also returned is Ellen Gibson, a young woman, whose minor fate it is to pick up the pieces of Ruth and her family’s lives. She is the viewpoint character here, judging, assessing, appearing in a coda which, after all the events of the novel, conveys a sense of perfect peace. Ruth’s tiger proves nothing of which to be frightened, for it has comforted a dying woman. Wrong might have been committed, but the evildoers have met justice, in some form. Even two rather stupid pet cats will find a home, and not the green dream.
There are faults with this novel. Although its language is mostly pellucid, it does try too hard with its images, as in the repeated references to ears being like dishes and once, particularly awkwardly, ‘dishy’. But then there are word-pictures both precise and effective: ‘His handwriting was lean as winter twigs’. Ruth’s final deterioration does seem slightly beyond the author’s powers of expression at this stage – consider, for instance, Randolph Stow’s great Visitants (1979) for an unforgettable depiction of a mind untethering. Visitants is also far more at ease with its depiction of colonialism than The Night Guest, probably because of Stow’s first-hand experience as a patrol officer. Frida may be intended as a fluid signifier, but are Ruth and Richard so unobservant that they cannot tell the difference between a Melanesian and a Polynesian? And why do the remembered scenes in Fiji seem so far less vivid than the coastal locale of Ruth’s retirement, when the tropics, even in distant memory, tend to be intense, dominating the senses?
These demurrals though, are not major. McFarlane has taken a number of diverse elements – the nursery tale tiger of Victoriana, allegory, advances in neuroscience, the callous greed of those who exploit the mentally impaired aged – and shaped them into a narrative that is not only coherent, but for the most part, adroitly controlled. The Night Guest is a novel both unpredictable and unusual. The reader trusts that the vagaries of the Australian publishing industry will allow McFarlane to publish more. She deserves a space in the national literature.
James Doig (editor), Australian Gothic (Equilibrium, 2007)
Pat Flower, Vanishing Point (Collins, 1975)
Ken Gelder and Rachael Weaver (editors) The Anthology of Colonial Australian Gothic Fiction (Melbourne University Press, 2007)
Phyllida Lloyd (director), Iron Lady (2011).
Gillian Mears, Foal’s Bread (Allen & Unwin, 2011).
Randolph Stow, Visitants (University of Queensland Press, 2003).
Kaaron Warren, Through Splintered Walls (Twelfth Planet, 2012).