Ruth is an old woman living alone, in what used to be her family’s summer home, by a beach in Australia. Her husband has been dead for five years and her sons live far away. As the story begins, Ruth seems lucid, capable. But into her life comes Frida, apparently sent by the government to help Ruth cope in her old age. This is as much an exploration of how Western society treats older people as it is anything else. Around the time that Frida arrives, Ruth also starts to have strange dreams – or sensations – of a tiger creeping around her house at night. McFarlane unsettles the reader at the beginning and doesn’t let up until near the end.
McFarlane mixes popular and literary writing very well indeed. I read this book in a day, it is clearly a thriller, and loved the subtle interplay between Ruth and Frida. Who should the reader trust? Is Ruth suffering from dementia? Or is Frida lying to Ruth? Is there really a tiger wandering around Ruth’s house at night, scaring her cats? McFarlane manages to unfold the tension in such a controlled way, but her writing style is so easily readable. There is some foreshadowing: Frida had the ‘constitution of an ox’, and it is revealed that Ruth, ‘as a child, was afraid of oxen.’ But should this foreshadowing be trusted? Is it all a bluff? There are so many questions that need answering in this book.
Ruth’s sons live their respective lives very far away from their mother. Should they be there to look after Ruth? They see her very rarely, once a year or so. Too often, old people are wilfully forgotten about. And dementia is a hard disease to see somebody live with. Are her sons aware of Ruth’s state of mind? Or is she actually ok? McFarlane’s portrayal of the mind of somebody possibly living with dementia rang very true for me. It was very skilfully done. Or is she suffering from it at all? She becomes confused very quickly. This feels like a comment on an aspect of society that doesn’t receive much press, and to do so in the form of a thriller is very skilful.
I loved this book, until near the end. The last chapter especially feels melodramatic; the rest of the book was intricate and subtle, yet the ending seems to undo all of that work. For me, the ending let the book down and I was so disappointed it tarred the novel for me at first. But, in hindsight, this is a brilliant first novel that deserves a big readership. And I can’t wait to read more of McFarlane’s work.