One of my holiday reads (yes, still working my way through reviewing those – it’ll probably coincide with my next holiday by the time I finish with it) was Wish Her Safe At Home (1982) by Stephen Benatar. I heard about it from this article, reprinted in The Week. I’ve only just noticed it was written by the usually rather imbecilic Cosmo Landesman (Col and I find his film reviews very useful – you can guarantee that whatever he writes, the exact opposite will be true) – had I spotted Landesman’s name on it before I wouldn’t have proceeded. Glad I did! And, had that article not appeared on my horizon, Aarti’s enthusiasm would surely have filtered through! To get an idea of how much she loves Wish Her Safe At Home, just think about me and Miss Hargreaves…
Benatar’s novel made the press mostly because of his determination to give it a readership. That article elaborates on how he (very gently) approached people in various bookshops, suggesting they might like to read Wish Her Safe At Home (and probably his other novels too). He also set up his own publisher to reprint his own novels. And it takes some gumption to approach Penguin Classics and suggest his own, moderately successful, novel should enter that hall of fame. They wanted an introduction from a notable name, John Carey was happy to oblige (if the name is familiar it might be because, like me, you’ve flicked through The Intellectuals and the Masses) – but Penguin still turned it down. The beautiful New York Review of Books Classics were, thankfully, more sensible – hence the novel’s current incarnation.
So that’s the story the newspapers enjoyed – man battles against odds; gritty determination rewarded. We Brits do love an underdog – but don’t let any of that stand in the way of Wish Her Safe At Home being read on its own merits. It’s worth remembering that it was shortlisted for the James Tait Memorial Prize (a better indication of a good book than the Man Booker Prize, I reckon). So let’s get onto the story that really matters – the one within the pages of Wish Her Safe At Home.
Rachel Waring – who had once been ‘almost pretty’ – has inherited her great-aunt’s Georgian mansion, and leaves her dull job and incompatible flatmate, having instantly fallen in love with the house when she visited it. Moving there hadn’t been the plan, but its lure is such that she is immediately certain that she must:
The exterior of the house was beautiful. Terraced, tall, eighteenth-century, elegant. Oh, the stonework needed cleaning and the window frames required attention – as did the front door and half a dozen other things. But it was beautiful. I don’t know why; I just hadn’t been expecting this.
I always find the attraction of houses fascinating in novels. As someone who could happily spend all day staring at a beautiful home, who gazes into estate agents’ windows at properties I could never possibly afford, and who regards Kirstie and Phil as something akin to surrogate parents… well, I can sympathise with Rachel thus far.
But that isn’t all – the house has a plaque to Horatio Gavin, ‘Philanthropist and politician’, who had lived there 1781-1793. Rachel develops an interest in Gavin, and determines to find out more about him…
It’s not just dead philanthropists who catch Rachel’s interest. Indeed, more or less anybody she meets is considered a potential conversational partner, even if she is appraising and judging them at the same time. Benatar’s skillful presentation of Rachel’s voice gives her inner thoughts and outer expressions all tangled up with one another, and also fuses in the odd line here and there which show that neither are quite right… more on that later. First, here’s an example of Rachel’s lack of edit-button in her outbursts to anybody in close proximity…
“I think I should like to have been somebody’s favourite aunt,” I said. “I think it might have been fun.” This, to the woman whose table at the teashop I had asked to share.
She smiled, hesitated, finally remarked: “Well, perhaps it’s not too late.”
“No brother no sister, no husband – somehow I get the feeling it might be!”
“Did you ever see Dear Brutus?”
“Dear Brutus? Yes! A lovely play.”
“Wouldn’t it be fine if we all had second chances?”
She nodded, now looking more relaxed. “Oh, I’d have gone to university and got myself an education!” I reflected that she probably needed one. “But otherwise I don’t think I’d have wished things very different.” She gave a meaningless laugh and started gathering up her novel and her magazine. Poor woman. What a lack of imagination. (And what a dull, appalling hat.) Yet I realised that I envied her.
It’s not just strangers in cafes, though – Rachel becomes friendly with an assortment of local people, especially her youthful gardener and his wife, Roger and Celia. Their lives get increasingly tangled up, in the most cheerful and whimsical way imaginable… or so it seems.
For it quickly becomes apparent that Rachel is not a reliable narrator. Whenever this realisation dawns in a novel, I get a little shiver down my back – what to believe, what not to believe! At first she seems unhinged in a jolly way – singing to herself, accosting everyone with sunny optimism and faux-schoolma’am whimsy. She meanders along the line between being consciously eccentric and… something less healthy. She gets increasingly bizarre, and it becomes clear that she is not sane… As John Carey writes in his introduction, ‘It reminds us how thin the boundaries are between the mad and the imaginative, the mad and the sensitive, the mad and the acute.’ She becomes obsessed with Horatio Gavin, the philanthropist who’d once lived in her house. We can no longer trust her version of the events she narrates – but second-guessing the truth is a twisting and turning game, written with excellent subtlety by Benatar. So much cleverer, so much better than The Behaviour of Moths, which tried something similar.
And Rachel’s is truly a unique voice. Witty and biting and joyous and enthusiastic and… yes, rather unhinged. Whether or not it is convincingly female is another question – I don’t mean feminine, for a female’s voice needn’t be feminine, but somehow it seemed as though it might not be a million miles away from Benatar’s own voice – though presumably his is rather tempered! That aside, Wish Her Safe At Home is quite extraordinary, and would certainly bear a careful re-reading. It’s not remotely the sort of novel I was expecting from the cover, or even from the blurb. I was expecting a novel which felt much older – this novel is unmistakably modern. Not through expletives or slang or modern references, but perhaps in tone. [Edit: I think what I actually meant, having read Aarti’s comments and reassessed, is that the novel felt timeless. When I said ‘unmistakably modern’ I meant it obviously wasn’t a 1940s reprint, in the way that The Little Stranger could have been – this novel could have taken place at any time, and it takes a while to work out when it is set.] And yet it combines this with a sense of history, and a charm which is uncommon in post-war novels. It’s an extraordinary read, and I am glad that Benatar’s persistence and determination paid off.
It shouldn’t be unusual, but John Carey writes an unusually good Introduction. Not unusual for him, I mean, just unusual in general. I’ve now used the word ‘unusual’ so often that it has lost all meaning… Aside from some lazy anti-Christianity, Carey writes insightfully and with an eye that is both analytical and appreciative. More on that topic tomorrow, methinks…
Do let me know if there are any unreliable narrators I should meet (although don’t let me know if their unreliability is a huge spoiler for the book!)
Books to get Stuck into:
To be honest, this most reminded me of the book I read immediately beforehand – The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters – because of the influence of a house, etc. etc. Instead, I’ll pick a couple novels with unreliable narrators, which is always an interesting angle…
Prince Rupert’s Teardrop by Lisa Glass – ok, being honest, this book was far too gruesome for me to enjoy – but it’s also the best and most unnerving unreliable narrator I’ve encountered.
A Kind of Intimacy by Jenn Ashworth – and this is the next most unnerving! The tale of a scarily obsessive neighbour… but told from the perspective of that self-deluded neighbour. Very clever, and decidedly gripping.