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Book Club: The tiger who came to stay...
What if that sound you hear in your house at night was a really big cat... Fiona McFarlane tells us about her début novel The Night Guest - our Book Club book of the week.
The Night Guest is a novel about an elderly woman who thinks she lives with a tiger. I never actually sat down and decided to write that novel; I thought separately about an elderly woman and about a tiger, and I thought both would be short stories. Even when it was clear that they belonged in the same piece of writing, I refused to call it a novel. I called it, for a very long time, ‘The Long Thing.’ Writing a novel is preposterous, when you think about it – to spend so many years and so many, many hours working away at something no one may ever read – and so it seemed necessary to trick myself into it. Since admitting this to people, I’ve discovered how many writers surprise themselves into novels and collections, partly so as not to frighten themselves, I think, and also because there can be something wonderfully oblique about the act of writing. Which is not to say that we write our books at some sort of deluded remove; just that it’s helpful not to think about what we’re working on as a Book, and to approach it, instead, with a tender, itchy resolve, as a chunk of words.
Writing a novel is preposterous, when you think about it – to spend so many years and so many, many hours working away at something no one may ever read
It may be that The Night Guest is particularly suited to this kind of subterfuge, because it’s a novel about things that happen out of the corner of the eye. Ruth, my main character, wakes on the first page thinking she can hear a tiger walking around in her house. She hears him and, later, smells him; she finds evidence of him everywhere. She has other visitors, too: a magnificent woman named Frida, sent by the government to be Ruth’s carer, and Richard, the man she loved fifty years ago as a young girl in Fiji. Neither Frida nor Richard is quite what Ruth expects. There are many guests in her seaside home, and their most important actions often take place around corners and behind partially closed doors.
This tiger, though: I’m often asked where he came from, and the answer is, really, from childhood, another place where things happen out of the corner of the eye. A friend was telling me about her research into Victorian children’s poetry, and we discussed the presence of wild animals in nursery rhymes and songs and cautionary tales of the time: elephants, crocodiles, lions and tigers and bears, oh my. I was fascinated by this idea of the safe British nursery becoming unsettled by the presence of exotic, terrifying beasts from afar, and when I started thinking about it, I noticed how many tigers appear in children’s books, from The Jungle Book to the ultimate suburban feline in The Tiger Who Came to Tea. I knew right away that I wanted to write about a house that’s haunted – thrillingly, and horrifyingly – by a nursery tiger. The tiger is more than just a visitor from childhood, though; he’s a messenger from the end of things.
Ruth also started life with her childhood: I wanted to write about a character with a missionary childhood in the South Pacific and an ordinary adulthood in Australia. I’m fascinated by the different waves of colonial activity in the South Pacific and chose Fiji as Ruth’s early home because of the ways in which Australia as well as Britain is implicated in the history of that country. Ruth was a girl in the 1940s and 50s, and the dwindling empire she grew up in haunts the Australian house of her old age; the more interested I became in this idea, the more obvious it seemed to me that my nursery tiger was an evocative form of this haunting. Together, Ruth and Frida and the tiger act out kinds of terrible care and caring terror that mirror some of the difficulties of the colonial.
Many of the books I’ve found most beautiful and moving and fascinating have been influences on The Night Guest, although not necessarily in obvious ways: reading John McGahern’s Amongst Women, for example, helped me solve an important structural issue. But the only book I sought out as a deliberate influence was Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. I’d never read it, but of course knew, through the strange cultural osmosis which occurs with such books, what it was about: a man who, shipwrecked on a remote island, fashions ingenious methods of survival and is assisted by a cannibal helpmate/slave called Friday. The Night Guest is definitely not a re-telling of Crusoe (J.M. Coetzee’s Foe does wonderful things with that idea), but as I read Defoe’s ‘account’ I realised I had thought of Ruth, from the very beginning, as shipwrecked in the remoteness of old age. (Not that all old age is like this, of course, but Ruth is a widow, her sons live far away, and she has chosen to remain in an isolated house outside a small town.) I was drawn, as so many have been, to the racial complications of the Crusoe/Friday relationship, and I loved the sticky "authenticity" of Defoe’s narrative voice. Robinson Crusoe is, in so many ways, a marvellous trick: writing fiction as if it’s autobiography. A little like writing a novel as if it’s just a very long thing.
Fiona McFarlane, for Waterstones.com/blog
This article was previously published on Waterstones blog on 17th January, 2014.