Category Archives: Benatar Stephen

2018: It’s a Wrap

Towards the end of 2018, I started thinking about which books would make my best-of-year-list. Several of the titles I’d read this past year came to mind, and I began to think that I would, perhaps, have a difficult time narrowing down just a few titles to the list.

Helping with Inquiries: Celia Dale

A husband returns home to find his wife battered to death. The investigating detectives tell the husband, Leonard Henderson, to write down his statement, so we get his version of events which is contrasted to his memories of growing up with a cold, critical mother, and his marriage to the murder victim, Enid. Yes this is the story of a murder, but it’s also the story of a marriage (always impenetrable to outsiders). This is the first book I’ve read by Celia Dale, and it was on my shelf far too long before I finally picked it up. The tale is an insightful look at a claustrophobic marriage and I’ll be reading more from this author who now seems to have faded from view.

New World in the Morning: Stephen Benatar

A middle-aged, married antique seller gets a new lease on life when an attractive female customer walks into his shop. Narrated by 39-year-old Sam, this tale of a man who feels hampered by family life, ‘could’ be very 70s in its portrayal of a man who springs free of his commitments. Instead, in the capable hands of author Stephen Benatar, we see a selfish twerp with illusions of an acting career who proceeds to blow up his very comfortable life. While Sam may think his infidelity is paramount to a heroic selfless act: “one thing was sure … both of them would benefit. I’d be doing it for the three of us,” in reality, even though Sam is in control of the narration, we begin to wonder just who puts up with who in Sam’s marriage.

A Little Love, a Little Learning: Nina Bawden

Told in retrospect, this is the story of short, but significant period in the life of 12-year-old Kate who lives with her mother and stepfather, a doctor. It’s 1953, and a friend of Kate’s mother comes to live with the family. The guest is a rather gossipy but supposedly good-hearted woman, and her arrival sparks a series of events. Through these event, Kate learns that life is not black and white. I usually dislike books written from the child’s perspective but this tale, told with an adult’s view, is simply marvellous. This was the second novel I’d read by Bawden. I wasn’t that keen on the first so I’m happy I tried again.

The Good House: Ann Leary

If forced to pick ONE book as the best-of-the-year, then The Good House would be the choice. I read this early in the year so it set a high standard for comparison. This is the story of a high-functioning alcoholic, a divorced real-estate agent who thinks her drinking is no one else’s business. The unreliable narration here is tart, funny, and entertaining. I laughed out loud several times and was sorry to see this one end. Brilliant.

The Fall Guy: James Lasdun

One lazy summer, Matthew stays at the vacation home of his much wealthier cousin, Charlie. Matthew’s grateful for a place to stay while he mulls over the next phase of his life, but does Charlie really want Matthew there?  Matthew has a thing for Charlie’s second wife, Chloe, and when Matthew discovers that Chloe is having an affair, he finds himself in a moral dilemma. Should he tell Charlie? Nothing is quite what it seems in this novel.

A Change in the Lighting: Amy Witting

Amy Witting is a great favourite. and I knew I’d love this novel. A Change in the Lighting is the story of a middle-aged woman who is floored when her professor husband casually announces that he wants a divorce.  Ella whose whole life for the past 30 years has been raising three children and taking care of the household, doesn’t know what to do. She teeters on the edge of madness but sinks into elaborate rug making. Her children take sides in the divorce war, and yet .. in spite of everything that goes wrong, Ella finds that her life expands into new territory. Witty and wise.

A Wreath of Roses: Elizabeth Taylor

Two childhood friends, Liz and Camilla, spend the summer at the home of Liz’s former governess, Frances. The novels examines the choices made by these women and how taking chances opens up the possibilities of hurt and even danger. In life, we make our choices and then wonder if they were the right ones. Elizabeth Taylor takes that central idea and runs with it. This is a very dark novel. When I picked it up, I wondered why the title was A Wreath of Roses and not a vase or a bunch etc. The word wreath reminded me of death…

Mrs Sartoris: Elke Schmitter

A middle-aged woman who married decades earlier on the rebound finds passion, but will this end happily? No of course not. This is narrated by a woman who seems in control of her passions, but is she? She functions well as an employee and a wife, but like an iceberg, what you see on the surface is only a fraction of what’s there. She may seem in control, but once unleashed, there’s no telling what may happen.

Hell Hath No Fury: Ingrid Noll

A middle-aged woman goes off the rails when she becomes infatuated with a self-absorbed, married academic. A deranged narrator who is also unreliable. How can you go wrong? This was close to being my best read of the year….

Accident on the A-35: Graeme Macrae Burnet

A man dies in a car accident and a police detective investigates. In one sense this is a police procedural (my least favourite crime novel),  but has a crime even been committed? As the investigation continues, the detective finds that the inhabitants of this small French town are less than cooperative. But the crime/investigation is not the main story here: surely it’s the view of small town life, frustrated ambitions and a disintegrating marriage.

Adolphe: Benjamin Constant

A wealthy young man persuades an older woman, the mistress of another man, to become his mistress. The young man cannot live without this woman–or so he thinks, and then he gets her… this rather cynical (realistic) look at love and passion peels back the human psyche and it’s not pretty. But that’s why it’s such a great book.

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Filed under Bawden Nina, Benatar Stephen, Burnet Graeme Macrae, Constant Benjamin, Dale Celia, Fiction, Lasdun James, Leary Ann, Noll Ingrid, Schmitter Elke, Taylor, Elizabeth, Witting Amy

New World in the Morning: Stephen Benatar

In Stephen Benatar’s New World in the Morning, Sam Groves, married to childhood sweetheart Junie, has two children 12-year-old Matt and 15-year-old Ella. Sam, at age 39, the owner of a second hand shop named Treasure Island, would appear to have the perfect life. He is happily married, his wife loves him, and they live in a gorgeous, roomy home, the former rectory in Deal, a dwelling they both admired in their youth.

A visitor to Deal, an attractive woman named Moira, steps into Sam’s shop. Shortly, after meeting Moira, Sam spends a Sunday with his wife’s large family, and it’s a good look at Sam’s place within the larger family network. It’s clear that Sam feels that he’s been co-opted by the family, and that married at age 19, life passed him by. He didn’t attend university but instead married June, and her parents helped finance their current life. Meeting Moira stirs Sam’s buried resentments and desires while fueling a desire for excitement. The seeming perfection of Sam’s life evaporates as he connives to juggle his stable home life with Moira, who lives in London.

New world in the morning

Sam’s a bit young for a mid-life crisis, but in essence that’s what occurs. He starts worrying about his appearance, decides to adopt an exercise regime, and absolutely intentionally sets out to deceive both his wife and intended mistress.

Sam is our unreliable narrator, and so we only see events through his eyes. We have a Kingsley Amis self-absorbed character here–someone who lives lightly while leaving devastation in his wake. Sam doesn’t see consider the impact of his behaviour on others and he selfishly seeks gratification, with no thought about the results of his actions. (For animal lovers, the dog is the first casualty, but this aspect of the novel is well created, isn’t too painful to read and serves to highlight Sam’s egocentric world view.)

Of course there’d have to be deception. But purely for the common good. It was through Moira that I was going to grow and blossom and bear golden fruit: through me that Moira was going to encounter love and passion and fulfillment. And Junie would awake to find an incomparably more thoughtful and devoted husband.

In fact, according to Sam, his infidelity is paramount to a heroic selfless act: “one thing was sure … both of them would benefit. I’d be doing it for the three of us.”

It may seem that Sam sheds his faithful, plodding married life too quickly, but as the book proceeds, Sam’s long held-discontent is evident (he has ambitions to be an actor for example and still imagines that a career awaits). After a row with Junie, it’s clear that Sam’s version of life doesn’t match his wife’s.

Sam’s one sided, self-justified view can be nauseating, especially at the beginning of the novel, but New World in the Morning is elevated to wonderful domestic comedy by its sly humour–all at narcissistic Sam’s expense. While Sam blithely plots a double life, somehow we know that he won’t get away with it. While pretending to visit a old friend, he sails off in a state of euphoria to London, floating on denial, wishful thinking and armed with food from Junie. It’s in London that the plot really begins to take on deeper significance as Sam creates elaborate stories for Moira and his slippery sociopathic behaviour escalates.

This novel checked a lot of boxes for me: the unreliable narrator, dark humour, the easy shedding of a decades long life. Sam annoyed the hell out of me at first, but soon I was thoroughly enjoying his descent and the inevitable consequences. This one will make my best-of-year list.

I read Benatar’s wonderful Wish Her Safe at Home a few years ago.

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Wish Her Safe at Home by Stephen Benatar

“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.

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