“Actually your father did once mention a strain of insanity in his family.” Pause. “So all naughty little girls had better watch out, hadn’t they?”
One of my reading goals of 2010 is to read more books published by New York Review Book Classics. In fact, I ordered several titles right after reading and throughly enjoying Stephen Benatar’s marvelous novel Wish Her Safe at Home. Looking at the book’s cover, you might get the impression that the tale is set in the early decades of the twentieth century. But that’s not so; this delightful novel is set in 1981 right around the time of the royal wedding–an event that caused some people, temporarily at least, to believe in such things as fairytale romances.
Benatar’s novel did not win the Booker prize in 1982 much to the disappointment of one of the judges, John Carey–who according to the introduction, hopes that he is making up a bit for the fact the novel didn’t win. Thomas Keneally’s novel Schindler’s Ark carried off the prize that year. And looking at the Booker prize website , Benatar’s novel didn’t even make the short list. But since experience proves that I seem to prefer the prize losers over the prize winners, I perversely pay more attention to the names of the novels that didn’t win. Stephen Benatar is an entirely new author for me. Apparently, Benatar conducts his own ballsy guerrilla marketing by waylaying customers in bookshops and asking them if they are interested in buying one of his books. In this day and age, we seem to see massive advertising campaigns for a few “special” and all-too frequently nauseating titles, and Benatar’s self-promotion brings up the issue of author involvement in book advertising. I think it’s great to see authors establish their own websites, blogs and even tackle the sort of personal approach taken by Benatar.
Now back to the novel….
In Wish Her Safe at Home forty-seven-year-old Rachel Waring inherits a house in Bristol from an eccentric, reclusive great-aunt she hasn’t seen in almost forty years. When Rachel gets the unexpected news, she’s been working at a mundane job in ‘mail order’ for over 11 years in London and she shares a flat with her long-time roommate Sylvia. While Sylvia is a bit sour and resentful about Rachel’s inheritance, Rachel is understandably thrilled. At the first opportunity, she dashes off to Bristol for an inspection. The house, a minor landmark, is a three-floored “terraced, tall, eighteenth century, elegant” home once lived in by a long-forgotten politician named Horatio Gavin. The house which had been occupied for decades by Rachel’s great-aunt and her female companion Bridget shows the tell-tale residue of being inhabited by those who suffer from mental illness:
“Here, I was pointedly informed, had the refuse of many years amassed into something to rival the town tip; in the centre it had even touched the ceiling.And although the council had fumigated, although the rodent inspector had laid his poisons, still the air was fetid, the walls damp, discoloured–the paper hanging in places like the peeling skin of mushrooms.”
It seems that Rachel’s aunt lived in eccentric seclusion in the house, and according to Mrs Pimm, the Almoner at the hospital in which Aunt Alicia eventually died, Aunt Alicia was completely potty. Mrs. Pimm relates the story to Rachel with entirely too much relish, informing Rachel that the old lady:
“was gaga….Sometimes according to the neighbours, they could be as sweet as pie; but sometimes you would hear them scream and it was just like they were doing each other in! Like Bedlam, said the neighbours–well only thank heaven for such good solid walls! There were endless complaints to the council.”
Once Rachel sees the house, she falls in love with it, and so she dumps her job and her roommate, takes her life savings of 20,000 pounds and moves into the house, overseeing renovations. Leaving a life full of regrets and lost opportunities, Rachel sees her move as a chance to reinvent herself, and this process parallels the renovations of her new home. The house is gradually renewed from its rather sorry state, and as Rachel disconnects from her past, she becomes obsessed with writing a biography of the house’s owner, Horatio Gavin.
Rachel, the heroine of the novel (and I am very deliberately using the term heroine here) is a cross between Blanche Dubois and an aged Scarlett O’Hara, and this is amplified by the notion that Rachel fancies that she looks a lot like Vivien Leigh. In fact A Streetcar Named Desire is one of Rachel’s favourite films, and she somewhat troublingly admires and identifies with Blanche:
“I was very much moved by her brave declaration: ‘I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.'”
Yes, it’s enough to set off alarm bells. Given Rachel’s identification with Blanche coupled with the fact that most of Rachel’s romantic ideas seem to be influenced by film, it should come as no surprise that Rachel has a teensy problem when it comes to men. With images of Rhett Butler, Gary Cooper and Frank Sinatra bouncing around in her head, Rachel’s thoughts dwell on the various males in the periphery of her life. It starts with the “romantic chemist” in the corner shop, and then there’s the strapping, young gardener–a man who works shirtless in Rachel’s garden:
“Damp golden curls across the chest. And running down from the navel. And probably beyond.”
And if all else fails there’s the vicar:
“The minister was young and not bad looking in a beefy sort of way. This no doubt added a spot of pep to the service. No wonder there were so many women present; I might even come again myself. He had nicely shaped hands, well-manicured, the fingers dark with hair. His wrists as well. He’d almost surely have a hairy chest.”
Wish Her Safe at Home is a delightful read, and Benatar skillfully follows his unreliable narrator heroine to the end-of-the-line. There’s so much more I could write about this novel–it’s funny, poignant, and touching. Some books are a rare treat to read and Wish Her Safe at Home falls into that category. Interpreting the world through Rachel’s vision was an experience I don’t think I’ll forget (although my reactions were rather different from those in John Carey’s introduction). Benatar maintains a pitch perfect interpretation of Rachel, never once slipping from that unique character’s perspective. Written by another author this novel could have been dour and depressing stuff. Instead there’s a light sort of almost magical humour to Rachel’s interactions and pseudo-relationships as she obliviously sails beyond the mundane, sobering realities of disappointment, loneliness and criticism to eventually become a triumphant version of her favourite film star.