I have strong mem­o­ries of mum sit­ting on our beds read­ing. It was the high­light of the day

The Herald - Arts - - BOOKS -

FIONA McFARLANE was six years old when she wrote her first novel – “or what I called a novel as a very young girl,” she laughs. Be­fore that the award-win­ning Aus­tralian au­thor had been turning out nu­mer­ous short sto­ries, so she feels as if she has been writ­ing all of her life. “I grew up in a fam­ily with a lot of books,” says the Syd­ney-born-and-bred 38-year-old, whose im­pres­sive de­but novel, The Night Guest (2014), be­came a crit­i­cally ac­claimed in­ter­na­tional best­seller and, ac­cord­ing to the Los An­ge­les Re­view of Books, promised “lit­er­ary great­ness”.

“My mum, Lyn, worked in a book­shop be­fore be­com­ing a li­brar­ian so there were al­ways sto­ries be­ing read or told at home,” ex­plains McFarlane. “I al­ways had an aware­ness that books were writ­ten by real peo­ple, that they weren’t all dead or liv­ing in Eng­land, be­cause my mum or­gan­ised au­thor events for chil­dren. There is so much plea­sure in the sto­ries we first en­counter as chil­dren. As a child, for me, part of the charm of ex­is­tence was be­ing read to; I also think that gave me a love of the well-placed ad­jec­tive.”

Both of her par­ents – her fa­ther Ian, now re­tired, was a bio­chemist – read bed­time sto­ries to McFarlane and her older brother and younger sis­ter. “Fairly early on they read the Nar­nia books to us. I have very strong mem­o­ries of mum sit­ting on the end of our beds and read­ing, and me lov­ing that be­cause we got a chap­ter a night. It was the high­light of the day.

“There were all sorts of books in our house, not just lit­er­ary fiction. Be­cause of dad’s job there were his ref­er­ence books and we had a sub­scrip­tion to Na­tional Ge­o­graphic. My par­ents are Chris­tians and take their faith very se­ri­ously though I am not re­li­gious. You en­counter nar­ra­tive through faith and I grew up with sto­ries from the Bi­ble and the rich­ness of that lan­guage. We were sur­rounded by printed mat­ter.”

She has just pro­duced more printed mat­ter of her own, a ter­rific col­lec­tion of short sto­ries, The High Places, a baker’s dozen of pow­er­ful sto­ries writ­ten over the past 10 years. “I like to let some sto­ries lie dor­mant,” she says.

The old­est of the 13 sto­ries in the col­lec­tion, the un­set­tling Un­nec­es­sary Gifts, is about lost boys in an enor­mous, empty shop­ping mall. The new­est is But­tony, which cen­tres on an ap­par­ently in­no­cent chil­dren’s game and a golden boy. “What a lovely story!” many peo­ple have re­marked, much to McFarlane’s mys­ti­fi­ca­tion since it’s ac­tu­ally deeply sin­is­ter – she has a pen­chant for the macabre, the mag­i­cal, the mys­te­ri­ous. “I am very in­ter­ested in how strange the or­di­nary can be and, con­versely, how or­di­nary the strange can be,” she con­fesses.

But­tony was pub­lished by the New Yorker in Fe­bru­ary. Another story, Art Ap­pre­ci­a­tion, is hooked to a lot­tery win in 1960s Syd­ney and was in­spired by a story McFarlane’s fa­ther told of her grand­mother once win­ning the lot­tery, al­beit not a large amount. It be­gins: “Henry Tay­lor had al­ways known he would have money one day...” and was pub­lished by the mag­a­zine in 2013.

“It is won­der­ful to see a story you have writ­ten in that font and in those col­umns, an ex­pe­ri­ence be­yond any­thing I could have imag­ined. Sur­real,” she says, speak­ing from her par­ents’ Syd­ney home, al­though she now lives alone in the city. She re­turned a while ago af­ter 11 years in Eng­land and Amer­ica, as well as vis­it­ing Ed­in­burgh, where she spent a month fin­ish­ing The Night Guest, which she had be­gun af­ter aban­don­ing a long his­tor­i­cal novel that was col­laps­ing be­neath the weight of end­less re­search.

“I was drawn to Ed­in­burgh be­cause we had lived there for a year when I was three-years-old,” she says. “In 2012, I felt the need to go some­where, to be alone and just get my head down and fin­ish this very quiet novel, which I hon­estly didn’t think would ever get pub­lished be­cause I thought that the sub­ject mat­ter – de­men­tia – would be of no in­ter­est to pub­lish­ers. I loved Ed­in­burgh, just loved bring there, it was a won­der­ful place to write. I’ll be back.” Scot­land has a spe­cial place in her af­fec­tions any­way. Her fa­ther’s fam­ily em­i­grated to Aus­tralia from Glas­gow five gen­er­a­tions ago, al­though they are not aware of any liv­ing rel­a­tives.

Since The Night Guest came out, praise has been heaped upon McFarlane. She has won a shelf­ful of prizes, in­clud­ing Aus­tralia’s pres­ti­gious Voss Lit­er­ary Prize, as well as be­ing short­listed for a num­ber of other ma­jor awards.In the novel, wid­owed, 75-yearold Ruth senses a tiger stalk­ing her New South Wales beach house – a big­ger, far more ter­ri­fy­ing beast is, how­ever, about to in­vade her life. A beau­ti­ful tale of age­ing, lone­li­ness and the shift­ing sands of a woman’s mind, it be­gan as a short story af­ter McFarlane wit­nessed the ef­fects of de­men­tia on both of her grand­moth­ers. Al­though Ruth’s story is not based on ei­ther her grandma or her nanna – her mum’s mum – the novel is a fine trib­ute to them.

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