This debut novel is due out in the USA next month and will be published in the UK at the beginning of 2014. Over here in the UK, the hype machine has already cranked into overdrive to herald it as “THE debut novel of 2014”. Having finished this Advance Reading Copy, I am left absolutely baffled by all the advance praise McFarlane is receiving. This book is all kinds of terrible.
On the back cover, this is what it says: “In an isolated house on the New South Wales coast, Ruth lives alone. One day a stranger offering help comes to join her. At first, Ruth’s glad of the company. But who is prowling through her house at night?” that’s the plot. And then “A novel of mesmerising power that will leave its footprint on your heart”. Say what? Matters don’t improve on the inside flap of the dust jacket which goes into slightly more detail: “In an isolated house on the New South Wales coast, Ruth – a widow whose sons work abroad – lives alone. Until one day a stranger bowls up, announcing that she’s been sent by the authorities to be Ruth’s carer. At first, Ruth is happy to have the company. Frida is efficient and helpful, and willing to listen Ruth’s stories about her childhood in Fiji and the man she fell for there. But why does Ruth hear a tiger prowling through her house at night? How far can Ruth trust this enigmatic woman? And how far can she trust herself?” And with the expanded plot synopsis, so comes an expanded load of promotional blurb: “This hypnotic tale soars above its own suspense to tell us, with exceptional grace and beauty, about ageing, love, dependence, fear, and power and about the mysterious workings of the mind. Here is a dazzling new writer, reminding us how powerfully fiction can speak to our innermost secrets”.
Good lord. They are really going for it there, aren’t they? Well, let’s cut through the hyperbole for a second and look at the plot. Boiling it down, it’s about a physically infirm 75 year-old who is lonely and begins to think she’s losing her mind into the bargain. So when a stranger comes along, claiming to be her appointed carer, she believes them. Can anyone honestly tell me from just that outline that they don’t know where the story is going? It is painfully obvious from the second she appears who Frida really is. And things are already falling apart before Frida even shows up. McFarlane is prone to some pretty clunky writing, and it’s on page 5 that the reader is greeted with this: “The lounge room, when Ruth entered it in daylight, was benign. The furniture was all where it should be, civil, neat and almost anxious for her approval, as if it had crossed her in some way and was now waiting for her forgiveness, dressed in its very best clothes”. My jaw literally dropped when I read that and all I could think was “oh do bore off, it’s fucking furniture”. The book is littered with this kind of gaudily overwritten personification nonsense, so much so that it doesn’t so much soar above its own suspense as collapse beneath the weight of its own pretensions.
As if such horrendously flowery prose weren’t enough, there’s also the problem of the story itself. Frida is not a very good con woman and McFarlane is not a very good author, so between the two of them, it’s just so clangingly obvious where we are headed. Maybe that’s the point. Maybe you’re meant to be yelling at the book as Ruth is so thunderingly naive and trusting (or, if you’re in a less charitable frame of mind, really fucking retarded) with Frida. The wildly inconsistent characterisation of Frida doesn’t really help matters either. One minute she’s washing Ruth’s hair with tender loving care, the next she’s locking her in the house and making off to town with her bank book to do some shopping. It’s also pretty obvious what’s going on with the tiger Ruth keeps hearing at night. There is a sequence where Frida does battle with it while Ruth hides in her bedroom which cruelly exposes McFarlane’s incompetence as a writer. I was howling with laughter at the absolute ludicrous scenario, particularly when it was being spelled out in such a suffocatingly awful, painfully self conscious style.
By the time I got to the final chapter, all I felt was relief to finally be done with this enormous misfire. Ruth’s eventual fate was entirely unsurprising and equally unmoving, just as Frida’s true identity was tragically, clumsily obvious from the get-go. I can honestly find nothing to recommend about this book. The style is unbearable, the characters paper thin and inconsistent, the story flimsy, unbelievable and dull. Save your time and your money. There are bazillions of books out there. I read this one so you don’t have to.