Tag Archives: stella prize

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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Hanging on to the glow – three days of peace, love and words in Byron Bay

8 Aug

Well another Byron Bay Writers Festival has come and gone, but the glow lingers. Something magical happens when you get a bunch of writers and readers together. As the smart and funny David Astle said (see video) it was like we were all part of a giant Jamboree of people who cared about words and ideas. And the sun shone!

intimacy I was privileged to share a panel talking about intimacy with Mary-Lou Stephens, Graeme Simsion and Susanna Freymark. And also a panel called ‘Chick-lit, mass market am I literary enough for you?’ with Anita Heiss, Ed Chatterton, Colin Falconer and Moya Sayer-Jones. We had a lot of fun, as you’ll see on the video. The laughter at the start is for Ed Chatterton’s story about the humiliation of sitting next to Michael Robotham in the signing tent. We writers are sensitive folk.bbwf 2

I also loved hosting the Pitch Perfect Panel on Saturday morning, where five emerging writers pitched to some of the finest minds in the Australian publishing industry. I’ll eat my hat (that’s an in-joke for those who were there) if we don’t see at least one of those authors published before too long. I also enjoyed being one of the ‘Hypatia’s Hell Raisers’ in the Stella Prize Trivia night which celebrates Australian Women’s Literature. I now know that Hypatia was the first well documented female philosopher, astronomer and mathematician. I think I only answered one or two questions, but I’m sure I gave the impression it was more, which is absolutely the main thing!stella

Other highlights included Justin Heazlewood’s striptease and pole dance (see video) and hearing Denise Scott talk about her father dressing up as a clown at her sixteenth birthday party. A surprise favourite was John Elder Robison, who had fantastic photos from the seventies, when he was a roadie with Kiss and Black Sabbath. And there was so much more, but… you’ll just have to watch the video.

I am over in Fremantle next week for the Elizabeth Jolley Conference and will also be at the RWA fancy dress cocktail party on Friday. Fancy dress is not one of my strong points, but I do have a sailor hat. Hope to see you there.

 

Finding joy in simplicity – My review of Mr Wigg

1 Jul

mr wiggMr Wigg is an enchanting new novel by Queensland author, Inga Simpson. Set in 1971, the story takes place on Mr Wigg’s farm in South-West NSW. Here he grows a range of stone fruit, listens to the cricket on the radio, bakes with his grandchildren, reminisces about his life and works hard on a secret project.

‘Mr Wigg had squandered his life’ reads the first line of the book. And for some it might seem so. He has led a quiet life on the farm with his wife, Mrs Wigg, who died a few years ago. He has no great achievements to show for himself, just his orchard and his family. His son thinks it’s time he moved into town.

But Mr Wigg has a special relationship with all the fruit trees in his orchard and each has its own personality and quirky ways. The younger trees, the peaches and nectarines, tend towards silliness, while the older trees are wiser but sometimes impatient. Rhubarb, meanwhile, is characterised by a lack of manners. ‘Rhubarb’s speech was crude, and muted by soil.’

Things even get a bit saucy in spring, when the pears and apples get taunted by the trees which don’t need cross-pollination. ‘His books didn’t have much to say on the sexuality of fruit trees. Mr Wigg figured it was best to keep quiet until the storm of pollen had settled.’ Who knew that life on an orchard could be so intriguing?

Simpson tells us the story of an ordinary man in an extraordinary way, casting a light on the little events that make up a life. Whether it is meeting Mrs Wigg at a dance, making strawberry tarts with the children or telling mythical and magical tales about fruit, each moment is beautifully rendered. The outside world intrudes from time to time; his neighbour’s son is drafted for the Vietnam War and the Springbok’s tour is cancelled after protests.

Mr Wigg is poignant, a little sad, but having the still quality of a meditation. It says on the cover that this is, ‘A novel that celebrates the small, precious things in life.’ And so it does. Quietly contemplative, Mr Wigg is about simplicity; taking joy in the moment and each day as it comes. Turn off the computer and read slowly with a peach to hand.

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Inga Simpson will be appearing at the Byron Bay Writers Festival 2-4 August.

This is my sixth review for the Australian Women Writers’ Challenge. On a related note, I have been co-opted onto the panel of the Stella Trivia Night at the Byron Bay Writers Festival where I will be quizzed about my knowledge of Australian Women’s Literature. Scary stuff but should be a fun evening with lots of audience participation.

And for anyone interested in unleashing their inner chick-lit goddess, I’ll be running a half-day workshop on Monday 29 July as part of the Festival. Learn how to find humour in everyday situations, make your dialogue sparkle and give your character’s sex lives a little more sizzle. Come on, you know you want to…

Here’s hoping the rain abates before the marquees go up!