I have just returned home from a day out in Manhattan, more on which I will tell another time, and despite my throbbing feet and the fact that I am supposed to be meeting friends…oooh…an hour ago, I must just rush out this post on my reading of Wish Her Safe at Home before NYRB Reading Week comes to a close!
Rachel Waring is a middle aged spinster, living in a flat in London with another middle aged woman she can hardly stand, and working at an impossibly dull secretarial job with no prospects. Despite the depressing circumstances of her life, Rachel is cheery, and does her best to look on the bright side of things. At the beginning of the novel, she has just found out that her mad Great Aunt has died and left her a huge Georgian house in Bristol, and after visiting it briefly and falling in love with it, Rachel decides to leave her job and flatmate behind, and start again in the new house.
In Bristol, Rachel is free to let her creativity roam, and her happiness and new zest for life overspill into her interactions with the people around her. One of her first tasks is to create a ‘fairytale garden’, for which she calls in the help of a young student, Roger, who she finds herself fantasising about. Roger then turns up on her doorstep with his wife Celia and their baby son Thomas, and this young couple soon become her new ‘friends’; she is even asked to be Thomas’ godmother. She spends hours chatting with local shopkeepers, giving advice to others, and writing a book about the previous inhabitant of her house, Horatio Gavin, a minor figure in the anti slavery movement, whose Blue Plaque adorns the front of the house. On the surface, it appears that Rachel; friendly, inventive, and intelligent, is simply a lonely woman who enjoys interacting with others around her and, with no job now she has moved to Bristol, has taken up the understandably absorbing hobby of researching the history of the previous owner of her house. Though she frequently talks and sings to herself, and has a running internal monologue of often absurd and disconnected thoughts, these are not disturbing, as they are within the bounds of normality; who doesn’t talk to themselves, or sing a merry tune when they’re in the shower, after all?
However, as time goes on, Rachel’s behaviour becomes increasingly disturbing. While initially I thought she was aware of her eccentricity, and joking about her feelings of closeness to the long dead Horatio, I gradually came to realise that her fantasy life inside her mind, the one of song and unanimous adoration and conversations with Horatio, had become her reality. Her interactions with the real world become worrying, confusing, and cringeworthy, as what Rachel thinks and what she says start to merge into one, and the reactions of the people around her, while distorted by Rachel into being flattering towards her, are obviously those of bemused and embarrassed members of the public who have encountered a completely barmy woman. Rachel’s inability to understand why people are behaving what she deems to be ‘oddly’ towards her, and belief that she is the only person who is happy and joyful and loved enough to spread these feelings onto others, is heartrending, as clearly, she is so alone and unfulfilled and starved, and has been all her life, that this alternate fantasy life has pushed through her sane, conscious mind and overtaken it, turning into the reality she always wished her life could be.
What is also disturbing for the reader, is that, hidden beneath Rachel’s monologue of her reality, are indicators that all is not well in the real world, and that Rachel is being taken advantage of by Roger and Celia, and their friend, who happens to be Rachel’s lawyer. There is also the scary suggestion that Rachel may have killed her mother, and that her sanity had been ebbing away for a long time before she moved to Brighton, judging from her coworker’s mockery of her at her leaving party. Rachel’s world sits on a thin veneer of make believe, and probably always has, and though it seems she was intially aware of her propensity for fantasy and dwelling in a shiny world of movies and handsome heroes, as time goes on and her ties to the real world disintegrate, her mind is free to live in the world it prefers, and sadly, or perhaps not, for Rachel, her mind chooses to make the land of fantasy and ultimately complete delusion, its new home, rendering a normal life impossible.
I closed the novel feeling desperately sad for Rachel, in that her real life had failed her so spectacularly. A lonely child, with an overprotective and demanding mother and a fanciful imagination, she clearly had few friends and was mocked at school, and never really learnt to successfully interact with others as a result. Never loved, never connecting with anyone or forming the relationships and friendships most of us take for granted, Rachel retreated into a world of movies and fantasies, where she was loved and adored and looked like Vivien Leigh, with the whole world at her feet and a rosy future. When the house in Bristol gets given to her, she believes it will be the start of a wonderful new existence, a sign from God that all will work out, and these often religiously based delusional fantasies of her favour and adoration make her deliriously happy, even though the man she thinks is having sex with her is really the long dead product of her imagination, and the friends she thinks she has made are really just after her house. It is a tragic tale, but also, in a way, a happy one – because, though Rachel has strayed from the bounds of what we consider to be ‘sane’, ‘normal’, behaviour, she doesn’t know it, and as such, she is happy. For what, after all, is a normal life, and what is sanity? What constitutes happiness, and can a ‘mad’ person not attain it despite their ‘abnormal’ state? Where lies the line between madness and sanity, for don’t we all live out fantasy lives somewhere inside our heads, imagining we had done/said/been certain things that we aren’t and can’t? Is there really anything ‘wrong’ in choosing to live in a world where we are free to be the person we wish we were?
This is a massively intriguing, thought provoking and truly excellently written book, that absolutely gripped me. John Carey writes in his introduction that he is very sorry he didn’t campaign harder for this to win the Booker Prize when it was nominated in the 1980’s, and I am very inclined to agree. This has been an unjustly neglected book of our modern times, an example of how our increasingly individualised and media fed lives are producing lonely and socially inept people, and rightly deserving of being named a ‘classic’. If you want to read something that will make you work as a reader, and leave you slightly haunted afterwards, then this is the book for you. Never before have I been forced to consider just how close we can all come to being labelled ‘insane’, and how dangerous fantasies can become. Rachel Waring’s tale is one of both caution and fear; the next time I sing in the shower, I’ll certainly have a moment of wondering whether I will too end up walking down the street in a wedding dress, singing at the top of my lungs and genuinely believing the entire population of my city is bowing down at my feet…a sobering thought for a Saturday night!