Archive | March, 2014

Tenderness, suspense and dementia – my review of ‘The Night Guest’, Fiona McFarlane

20 Mar

the night guestThe Night Guest is the debut novel by Australian author Fiona McFarlane. This surprising and assured story has just been short-listed for this year’s Stella Prize for Australian Women Writers.

The protagonist of the novel, Ruth, is an elderly woman living on her own in a house by the sea, somewhere on the New South Wales coast. One night she wakes up, thinking she hears a tiger in the house. But she is just imagining it, she tells herself.

Next morning, a woman called Frida arrives at her door. She has been sent by the government, she says, to care for Ruth. Frida appears to Ruth to be Fijian, a characteristic which evokes her trust. Her childhood memories of Fiji press in on her more and more as she ages. But the longer Frida stays, the more reality and fantasy become confused in both Ruth’s and the reader’s mind.

Frida is a character who bursts from the page. Sometimes tender, sometimes fierce, she kept me entranced wondering what she was going to do next. A chameleon, Frida changes her hair daily and shrinks and grows almost magically, in Ruth’s eyes. Suspense grows as she gradually chips away at Ruth’s independence.

Ruth’s wandering lucidity makes her the perfect unreliable narrator. While the reader can fill in some gaps it is hard to know exactly what is going on. A scene where Frida fights the tiger filled me with dread, while doubting its reality at the same time. This element of the story adds a touch of magical realism which is left to the reader to interpret as they will.

The Night Guest was a standout read for me. Something of a psychological thriller, it also covers a wide emotional territory. Ruth’s memories of her first love Richard and her life with her husband interweave with her increasingly bizarre daily life. The story raises themes about aging, trust and dependence

McFarlane tells this story in simple but evocative prose. Inspired, she says, by both her grandmothers having dementia, it is a finely wrought picture of a mind coming undone.

This is a hard book to review without spoilers so I’m going to have to leave it there. Eerie, suspenseful and thought-provoking, I suspect that The Night Guest will be one of my top reads for this year.

My own story about dementia, which coincidentally also features a tiger and Fiji, featured in The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald on March 14. Read it here

This is my second post for the 2014 Australian Women Writers Challenge

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Friendship at Forty – my review of ‘Tiddas’ by Anita Heiss

3 Mar

tiddas coverI jumped at the chance to read Tiddas, because while I have read Anita’s memoir, Am I Black Enough for You? I had not yet read any of her women’s fiction. Anita, a proud Wiradjuri woman, has created a whole new genre in fiction — Koori chick-lit. Her novels are about smart, urban, Aboriginal women who like to shop, but are also socially aware and deeply rooted in their culture.

With Tiddas, she departs from her four previous novels about footloose singles by introducing us to a group of women on the cusp of forty. The title of the book means ‘friends’ and the story revolves around five tiddas who grew up together in Mudgee, but have found their way to Brisbane.

The action in the story takes place over about a year and uses the device of a monthly book group meeting as a marker for the changing seasons and lives of the five. The nature and value of female friendship is the thematic backdrop to the way each tidda deals with the central issues in her life.

There were so many things I enjoyed about this book. Having grown up in Brisbane, I loved the setting — the river, the joggers at Kangaroo Point and the gorgeous jacarandas that feature on the cover. The tiddas, Izzy, Veronica, Xanthe, Nadine and Ellen are well-rounded and despite, or maybe because of, their faults they are all likeable and fun to be around. On one level this is a study of issues relevant to all woman of this age — sex, fertility, career and relationships. But the book also gives an insight, through the tiddas, into Aboriginal culture and politics. Izzy, for example, aspires to be Australia’s Oprah, while Xanthe is a cultural awareness trainer and Ellen a funeral celebrant. I found the tiddas’ journeys realistic — their friendship waxes, wanes and sometimes falters. As in life, not everyone gets tied up with a ‘happily ever after’.

Tiddas is a warm-hearted book, which delves gently into both personal and social issues in a way that feels intrinsic to the story. I became involved in the lives of the tiddas and read the book quickly, finishing it with a sense of having been enriched by some lively and intelligent company.

Those of you who live near Byron Bay are lucky because Anita Heiss will be in our town soon… 

I will be discussing Tiddas with Anita at the Byron Bay Library on March 14 5.30pm for 6.00 (Phone 6685 8540 to book) and she is also running a workshop on writing women’s fiction on March 15 (see www.nrwc.org.au).

You can find out more about Anita and the Byron Bay event here. 

This is my first post for the 2014 Australian Women Writers Challenge