A first-time novelist, Fiona McFarlane set herself a high bar to clear in writing about an older woman, possibly in danger from a mysterious caregiver, possibly visited in the night by a tiger, and possibly possibly, mind you slowly slipping into dementia. Its a delicate balancing act that McFarlane handles with aplomb.
By MATTHEW TIFFANY
Special to The Star
Ruth Field lives alone in Australia, her life slowly winding down into old age, her husband passed on. Old age and time alone can be, in combination, risky; we dont know when our brains are convincing us of irrational fears, like tigers creeping through the kitchen at night. Ruth seems to have her wits about her, and uneasily chalks up the tiger to dreaming.
Shes also lucid enough to recognize that her lucidity is on the decline, though, when a woman named Frida shows up, claiming to have been sent by the government, part of a program to help the aged in tending to their daily needs.
Frida becomes helpful almost immediately, and Ruths initial unease begins to melt away after one of her sons speaks with Frida, and concludes that her arrival is timely and a boon.
Ruths situation gets assessed carefully by Frida her daily habits, medical conditions, sleeping habits. Fridas conclusion is that the one hour a day that shes scheduled for wont be enough. Shell need to spend three hours a day there, maybe more.
The two women fall into patterns of congeniality. Frida pushes Ruth to make small changes in her life, and they gently prod each other and feel each other out for friendship, for professionalism and for trust.
Ruth thinks about driving her dead husbands car, and Frida convinces Ruth to sell it and to let her to take over her banking.
McFarlanes writing defuses any solid hold on what is happening on the surface, it seems Frida might not be who she says and might not have Ruths best interests in mind. Living in Australia, its not entirely outside the realm of possibility that a tiger could be lurking around the house.
Uncertainty abounds, and McFarlane tantalizes the reader as it becomes clear that something dangerous is happening.
Mostly clear, anyway. Ruth finds Fridas help around the house to be an unexpected relief, and it frees her to focus more on herself. She contacts an old flame from her early adulthood and invites him for a visit. Before long, though, the happiness of their reconnection is muffled when Ruth discovers Frida has actually moved into the house.
Did Ruth know shed moved in? Frida seems to think they had a conversation about it, and chalks it up to the confusion of an older woman.
As Frida either out of need from Ruths deteriorating mental health, or some nefarious intention becomes more and more involved with her affairs, Ruth finds herself at a crossroads. Should she take more drastic action against Frida and the elusive tiger, or will this turn her into her own worst enemy?
McFarlanes ability to slowly build on this uncertainty is so masterful, some readers may find themselves angry at Frida and concerned for Ruth on one page and then reverse their positions on the next.
As in real life, when the answers come, things dont pan out as simply as one wants; but, unlike in real life, this complexity makes for an enthralling read.
Matthew Tiffany is a freelance writer and book critic in Brunswick, Maine.