An enrapturing debut novel that toys with magical realism while delivering a fresh fable.
One night, Ruth hears a tiger in her home. This reminds her of her childhood in Fiji, where her parents were missionaries, though there were no tigers in Fiji. Nor are there tigers where Ruth abides, alone in a seaside home on the southern coast of Australia, her children grown and living in other countries. The morning after Ruth hears the tiger, Frida appears as if from the sea. She explains that she is a government “carer.” A spot opened up, she says, and Ruth was on their waiting list. Ruth is not sure she needs a carer—she’s only 75—but Frida looks like she’s from Fiji, and a few hours a day couldn’t hurt. Initially, it seems that Frida is exactly what Ruth needs: a no-nonsense, larger-than-life presence who keeps Ruth company and her floors shining and sand-free. Ruth doesn’t hear the tiger again for some time. But other strange things begin to happen, things that test Ruth’s sense of reality with increasing frequency and, eventually, give rise to an unshakable foreboding. Ruth has reasons not to trust Frida. We have reasons not to trust her either, some that will be explained and some that will remain a mystery. McFarlane’s rendering of Ruth’s interior is quiet and exacting, and she builds suspense so gently that the danger is, at first, hardly noticeable. Frida, seen through Ruth’s eyes, is as compelling as she is enigmatic. By the time Ruth hears the tiger again, she and Frida are allied in a spiral of love and dependency that will dictate both their futures.
A pleasurable novel, with turns of plot and phrase both startling and elegant.