October 17, 2007
Stephen Benatar: Wish Her Safe at Home
This book came to my attention through a brief review in the Guardian recently. It’s a reissue of a 1982 novel, and though the publisher is Welbeck Modern Classics, that review suggests it’s the author himself who’s behind this facade. And what caught my eye was not just the promise of an unreliable narrator – I’m such a pushover – but the cover design. Well, now that Penguin don’t want their classy Modern Classics cover design any more, why shouldn’t someone else borrow it?
It’s difficult to know how much I can say about Wish Her Safe at Home without spoiling it, but as the reviews on the back and inside of the book make aspects of it pretty clear, I can at least go that far. It’s narrated by Rachel Waring, a forty-something woman who has inherited a house in Bristol. For those sensitive to the strains of the unreliable narrator, our ears prick up when we hear on page 2 that “actually your father did once mention a strain of insanity in his family.” And then there are the previous inhabitants of the house, Rachel’s great aunt and her companion Bridget:
When Bridget had committed suicide at the age of eighty-four, Aunt Alicia, ten years her senior, had gone on living in the same house with Bridget’s body: a state of affairs which had come to light only after two weeks…
Oh. Ah. And did I mention how much she identifies with Vivien Leigh as Blanche Dubois in A Streetcar Named Desire? So it comes as both a shock, and no surprise at all, when Rachel decides on visiting the rundown house that she intends to live there herself (“I felt as if I’d never had a real home”). And as she inhabits it, so it begins to inhabit her. In particular she becomes fascinated by a former occupant of the house, a minor 18th century abolitionist called Horatio Gavin. As her interest swerves toward obsession, and she begins writing his life, simultaneously her relations with other people – dare one say, real people – are increasingly irregular: “These days I didn’t appear to like anybody very much. Everywhere, it seemed, I sensed ulterior motives.”
Her dealings with her gardener (“nicely tanned and muscular”), chemist (“it came as no surprise that he should be the strong and silent type. That was the kind of man I often found attractive”) and vicar (“He’d almost surely have a hairy chest”) are not always, well, regular, but now I really have reached the point where I can’t go any further for fear of spoiling it. The progression of the story in any event is not that surprising, but what Benatar has done which is remarkable is in the creation of Rachel’s voice and character. Eccentric, flaky, dotty, she is never unsympathetic or tiresome, and the skittishness of her movement from present to past is not just in keeping with the workings of her mind, but positively touching in its slow revelation of how the past infects the present. She is so alive and real that for a moment I was about to refer to the author as she.
Rachel’s need for a home and her sense of dislocation is beautifully done, and the book – to slip into reviewerly cliche – really is by turns funny, affecting and unnerving. If the outcome and storyline do not overwhelm by surprise, nonetheless the journey is increasingly pleasurable while it lasts. Benatar has given self-publishing a boon by bringing Wish Her Safe at Home back into print, and it might even show that one character’s faith in an unfair world is misplaced: “He must have thought that nothing could get any worse. But he should have listened to William Shakespeare, shouldn’t he? Things can always get worse.”