Wish Her Safe at Home – Stephen Benatar

First published in 1984; reissued by the NYRB in 2010

A novel about a middle-aged woman who inherits a house and is thrilled by the prospect of a new life, but somehow lets her enthusiasm carry her a bit too far. 1984.

This book totally blew me away. It was like watching two trains about to collide: you cringe, you want to look away, but you find you can’t! It all starts when Rachel, a middle-aged secretary-type living in London, inherits a house in Bristol from a great-aunt she recalls going to visit as a child. Even as a child, Rachel knew that her great-aunt was a little…off. (The aunt, for one, would sing this song from her youth again and again—perform it, really—and young Rachel would mimic this to her friends and make them laugh.) Rachel’s mother, who we get to understand better as the novel progresses, remarks casually that oh yes, there is a bit of a crazy streak in the father’s side of the family. This one little remark, recalled by Rachel early on in the novel, sets up the magic genius of the book itself.

At the story’s opening, Rachel’s life doesn’t exactly impress with its glamor. She works in an office where her co-workers are indifferent to her, and at home her roommate is a total downer. It’s little surprise, really, that when she receives word of this inherited old house in Bristol, she decides almost immediately that she will move in there. One of the things that catches her eye as she meets the house is this little plaque next to the front door, which states that a minor political figure lived in the house for a while, about 200 years back. As she gets to know the house, this man, or rather the idea of him, takes root in her mind…

At first, we think that perhaps Rachel is just giddy over adopting this kind of lifestyle: the grand house, the quaint location, nice neighbors. But by the time she gets a letter from the bank stating that her account is overdrawn, a note that she dismisses, then keeps right on spending money, the reader’s discomfort begins. It was an uncomfortable read, pretty much from then on out. She was having such a blast, though, becoming the kind of woman she always dreamt of becoming! I felt like I couldn’t begrudge her for her happiness. I was also totally fascinated by this inside-looking-outward experience of the crazy mind (especially as it’s written in the first person, with Rachel as the narrator). The author does a superb job of layering the delusions thicker and thicker, so that you almost begin to think that what Rachel is relaying could be accurate. But then, one little glimpse of true reality breaks through the delusion, and you see that holy cow, this lady really is losing it! The ultimate unreliable narrator! For instance, Rachel would have these long conversations with a total stranger, and at first you think she’s imagining it, but then it gets so darn involved for a fantasy, and you wonder if maybe, somehow, it’s actually happening? Then she’ll speak aloud the last part of the conversation to the person, and they’ll be like huh? And that’s where you see that it was imagined all along. The point, though, is that in her head, the conversation really was taking place, somehow. Now THAT is artistry.

Rachel may have been created by a male author, and one who has presumably never been in Rachel’s shoes before, but Rachel still struck me as very real. (I see on Wikipedia that the author, Stephen Benatar, is gay. Maybe that has to do with his authentic protagonist and love scenes—I’ve found that gay male writers can write the woman’s POV pretty convincingly.) Part of her mental distress clearly stemmed from her spinsterhood, and from a love affair in her youth that never became the marriage and children she longed for. This passage in particular haunted me:

For some reason what I recaptured was the way it had felt, less than a year before, when my periods had stopped coming. Useless. Unused. Wasted. I recaptured how—when the realization had finally sunk in—I had cried on and off all through one rainy Sunday afternoon.

“Wasted”! Yikes, what a way to feel. I’ll also be haunted by all the old songs Rachel would sing, in her head at first then, as the story progresses, right out loud. I’m not sure I’ll ever think of the song “It’s Been a Long, Long Time” quite the same way again! Wish Her Safe at Home reminded me, inevitably, of that literary theme, popular in 20th century British literature, where a unsuspecting Londoner inherits a house from a distant relative. This book takes that setup and follows it down a strange but compelling path. Readers who love “unexpected inheritance” types of novels will also enjoy this read. But only, I’d caution, if they’re prepared to encounter something a little more…modern.

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