A stranger comes to town: writer Zoe Deleuil shares her 10 favourite fictional houseguests
My novel, The Night Village, begins with my shell-shocked main character, Simone, sitting in a London maternity ward holding a newborn baby and wondering exactly how she’s landed there. The next day she returns to her boyfriend Paul’s apartment and is plunged into her new life as a mother. A few weeks later, Paul’s cousin Rachel turns up with a battered leather suitcase, slips into the apartment – and doesn’t leave.
It took many drafts to work out exactly what Rachel was doing there. As I wrote I was fuelled by stories that begin with a stranger at the door, often finding clues and uncanny synchronicities as I wrote and read and then wrote some more.
House guests in novels are rarely straightforward. They carry hidden agendas along with their suitcases, and they have long been one of my favourite character types. Here are 10 house guests that captivated me long before I wrote The Night Village.
She Came to Stay by Simone de Beauvoir
This book was published in 1943 but its emotional honesty is timeless. A fictional retelling of de Beauvoir’s life in 1930s Paris with Jean-Paul Sartre, it recounts their decision to invite a young woman into their unorthodox relationship. I borrowed the title for my first draft, and at my editor’s suggestion named my main character after the author as a respectful nod to this classic novel.
The Hours Before Dawn by Celia Fremlin
Another one that feels almost contemporary despite being published in 1958. Much like poor Simone, the mother of three in this chilling novel would do anything for a good night’s sleep. Into this domestic chaos arrives Vera, a new lodger who appears strangely familiar to her exhausted host.
That Eye, the Sky by Tim Winton
A family’s life is shattered when the young narrator’s father is injured in a motorbike accident. When he returns from hospital, barely recognisable and needing constant care, a strange man slips into the house to help, transforming all of their lives in the process. Written from a child’s perspective, this mysterious coming-of-age story unfolds in a gothic rural setting that I always picture as the Katharine Susannah Prichard writing centre in the Perth Hills.
What Katy Did by Susan Coolidge
I treasure my much-read copy of this 1872 children’s classic, which my grandparents gave me for Christmas one year (books are the best gifts for kids!). Katy, the oldest of the Carr siblings, is always getting up to mischief until one day she goes too far and is left badly injured. The arrival of Helen, her charismatic older cousin, changes everything.
The Spare Room by Helen Garner
This short, endearing novel is based on Garner’s experience of helping to care for her terminally ill friend, Nicola. It raises all kinds of questions around mortality, friendship, ethical palliative care and what constitutes a successful life. Being Helen Garner, every moment – even the vacuuming of a rug – commands your attention.
My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier
Ambrose and his nephew, Philip have always lived together happily on their vast country estate in Cornwall, until Ambrose moves to Italy and marries Countess Rachel Sangaletti. When a letter arrives with news that Ambrose has died after a short illness, Philip inherits the estate. Soon afterwards the grieving widow Rachel turns up at the door, and things get interesting for young Philip.
Late in the Day by Tessa Hadley
A long-running friendship between two couples is shaken when one of them suddenly dies and his bereaved wife comes to stay with her friends. This changed dynamic between the remaining threesome prompts reflections on the past and unexpected new beginnings, with various badly behaved adult children and an arty middle-class London backdrop spicing things up even more.
The Well by Elizabeth Jolley
I don’t know if ‘wheatbelt gothic’ is a genre but if it is, The Well is the definitive example. Hester Harper lives on an isolated farm in rural Western Australia and invites a young girl she meets in town to come and live with her. It doesn’t end well.
Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
Although the unnamed main character arrives at Manderley as a young wife, she feels more like an unwelcome house guest. The desk is still littered with the letters of the first Mrs de Winter, the bedroom is left exactly as it was when she disappeared, and the girl wonders how she will ever live up to the beauty, intelligence and class of her predecessor.
Summer of Fear by Lois Duncan
As a teenager I loved getting spooked by Lois Duncan’s YA novels. In this one, the newly orphaned Julia comes to live with her cousin Rachel. But there’s something off about Julia – she seems much older than she claims, she has ‘the strangest eyes’, and she quickly weaves a spell on the men around her, including our narrator’s hapless boyfriend. Rachel becomes convinced her cousin is a practising witch – but will anyone believe her?
Zoe Deleuil’s novel The Night Village is available in all good bookstores and online.