In true keeping with what I do every year, I have begun the challenge by reading a book that wasn’t even on my list. It’s good to know I can be consistent.
*this review contains some spoilers
This book embodies the kind of slow-burning claustrophobia that one usually associates with a horror or murder mystery. Instead, it is the story of Ruth Field, an elderly woman living alone by the sea in a house with her cats and nothing of immediacy or importance ahead of her. One night she wakes to the sound of a tiger in her lounge room, and the sounds and smells of the Fijian jungle she grew up in closing around her. She calls her son in New Zealand in a panic, setting off a chain of events that results in her dying under a frangipani tree in her front yard, embracing the tiger that is death and has haunted her for months as both an adversary and an old friend. The person who arrives in her life after the first tiger sighting is Frida, a proud, energetic woman whose role in Ruth’s life is presented as that of carer, but as time goes on Ruth is unsure if her mind is failing her or if Frida is not who she says she is.
The tension and claustrophobia build slowly, sometimes excruciatingly, and everything becomes clear suddenly and in only a few lines, so that if you’re not paying attention you may miss the details of the whole situation.
The parts of this novel I found most engaging are when Ruth is remembering her childhood and youth as a daughter of missionary doctors in Fiji, recalling the repressive heat and a love affair that never quite happened. These sections are clearest, possibly because Ruth’s long-time memories are clearer to her than her perception and memories of the present and recent past. Frida’s imposing figure blurs the lines between clarity and confusion, kindness and emotional manipulation, and it is this relationship, and Ruth’s certainty in her perception slowly slipping away, that keeps one reading this work; I just had to know what was real in the end.