Wish Her Safe at Home by Stephen Benatar

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!

42 comments

    1. You’re welcome, Mel! I’m so glad you enjoyed the post and I hope you read the book. This event has indeed been wonderful and I am so looking forward to exploring the NYRB list further.

  1. Rachel, I’m so glad you made it in time. I love your review. This is another book on my TBR pile that I must read soon. Thanks so much for joining NYRB REading Week!

    1. Me too Astrid! Thank you for running such a wonderful event and encouraging us to read this series of books.🙂 I am so glad I could participate and I’m pleased you liked the review!

  2. I should have gotten this when I was at the library on Friday! But never mind, they have a copy at Mid-Manhattan. I started reading it at a bookshop one time, and I could have finished it, except I felt too guilty to read the entire thing while sitting the shop, and then leave without buying anything.

    (My feet hurt too! I should have worn my arch-supporting New Balance shoes rather than my aesthetically pleasing Converses.)

    1. You are a seriously gifted reviewer. Everything that you love I want to read (even when I know it won’t suit) and the things you don’t love I itch to read too. I am starting to think it is time for you to write your own novel.

      1. Oh Traci! Bless you, you are far too kind! I hope you will read this! And that novel will appear one day I hope, though I can’t possibly be as good as you!

    2. Yes you should have Jenny! Never mind, I’ll be returning it tomorrow at around 5.45pm, and you can swoop in after me and grab it!😉

      I would have felt guilty too. I feel guilty just reading in the library!

      I shouldn’t have worn completely flat soles – we did so much walking! My poor calves!

  3. You read it! Yay! Wonderful review. I posted my thoughts too. You’re quite right that it became so worrying, I just felt like I wanted to close the book and pretend it wasn’t happening. And yes, the spectrum on which insanity is located is the same one that we’re at (hopefullly?!!) the other end of. I do think there’s something wrong with the way she lives, even though she is ‘happy’ (and I’m not quite sure she really is. She’s certainly not content.) The thing for me is that although I have never seen this exact story play out, there are far too many similar ones in the real world. Of course I never ever would, but I half wanted to include in my review some of the tales of the many real life people with similar or even more extreme delusions who I have come across in my hospital placements, to illustrate that this ridiculous-literally- and horrendous tale is actually something happening inside many a head we pass on the street every day. And having the access to the internal monologue of someone having them was indeed ever so disconcerting.
    So glad you joined in! I still have one more NYRB book to read but i spy a great addiction coming on. It’s wonderful that they are republishing these books and I am all the more determined now to read more books from NYRB, Persephone and other publishers giving a voice to these people.

    1. Jane, you can’t possibly call my review wonderful in comparison to yours!
      Yes, madness is incredibly frightening, and I have seen many a mentally ill person on the streets of New York which saddens me immensely. Though, are they ever lucid enough to understand their plight, I wonder?
      I completely understand your point about whether or not she is happy, and I think that your interpretation would depend on what you consider to be happiness and contentment – what made me sad was that she realised at the end where she was, but not why she was there, and so clearly on some level she was still sane.
      Me too! I’m so glad you read this as well as your reading has added much to mine. I love the NYRB list and I’m glad I’ve had a chance to look into it. They are very easily available in the library here and I will certainly be seeking out more of these editions.

  4. This one has been on my list for a while. I’m really looking forward to reading it… someday. I love reading books with unreliable (or self-deluded) narrators. The NYRB book I read for the week, After Claude, also featured a deluded narrator, but her fantasies are more anchored in reality, I think.

    1. Hi Teresa! I really enjoyed your review of After Claude and this does sound vaguely similar – perhaps you need a break from deluded narrators for a while! I’m sure you’d enjoy this once you’ve had a chance to take a break!

  5. I must read this. I ran into Stephen Benatar in Waterstones on his one-man bookselling mission and stood chatting to him for ages, couldn’t think why his name sounded familiar and it was only when I got home that I realised I had a copy of When I Was Otherwise on the shelf. A really lovely man. (You know what it’s like when somebody’s trying to sell you something, and you’re trying to sidle out of the door without being rude … but then I was so glad that I’d stopped to chat!)
    He also said that Waterstones had been very helpful, which was change from all the horror stories you hear of publishers having to pay for book displays.

    1. Mary, I know you would love this. And I love that you have met Stephen Benatar. What a wonderful sounding man – I really admire his confidence in his ability and his passion and drive to promote his novel that he rightly believed deserved more attention. It just goes to show what determination would do.
      That is a surprise about Waterstones! Stories like Benatar’s really do make me wonder just how hard it must be for talented people to get their work out there these days. I get so frustrated when I see rows and rows of samey pastel coloured chick lit covers and celebrity biographies in book shops, when novels that have the potential to really affect people are shoved into dusty corners and not given any promotion or attention whatsoever, because they ‘won’t sell’ in the numbers necessary to justify the effort.

  6. We’ve been dealing with a woman at the library who thinks she is being cyber-stalked by the Russian mafia. They email her when she’s been to the library or grocery shopping to tell her what she’s brought home. Last week, she wanted me to sign out her books in a particular order so as to ‘send a message’ to these people. She looks as sane as the rest of us and could be anyone’s mother.

    I’ve been pimping this book to lots of customers at the library, doing my bit to advertise a great read. I’m with you, Rachel, I can be a bit silly sometimes but hey…keeps things interesting!

    1. Oh how sad Darlene. I wonder if she has anyone to look out for her? I don’t think I’d know what to say in your position!

      Good to hear it Darlene – I wish I worked in a bookish environment and could force people to read my favourites! I’d do it an a totally passive aggressive way by rearranging all the displays and comparing everything people brought to the counter to the book I really wanted them to read!

  7. Delusion can take so many forms. When I worked for British Airways, one of my tasks was to assist the public in meeting incoming passengers. At least a couple of times a week, always in the evening, a man would come to meet his brother from a certain flight from Zurich. A supervisor told me how to answer this poor man when he came to the desk. His brother, who had been due to take the evening flight, had been horribly murdered years before.

    I’m going to order this book at once! I’m so intrigued to read Rachel’s story. Let’s hope it helps readers to sympathise with the deluded people who cross our paths – it seems increasingly often.

    1. Oh Chrissy, what an awful story. That poor man. I wonder how much of his delusion was physical or psychological. It’s fascinating how the brain copes (or doesn’t) with trauma, isn’t it?

      I’m glad you’ve ordered this! I am sure you will get a lot from the reading of it. It’s not the sort of book you can say that you ‘enjoyed’ as such but it is still a very rich and rewarding reading experience.

    1. You are so ahead of the times! Obviously your reading eye is second to none. I’m so glad you’ve had a chance to read this already – it’s a pleasure to have encouraged you to pick it up again!

  8. Another A+ review, Rachel, and some insight into not only “Wish Her Safe at Home”, but into the human condition.

    There is a neighbor down the street that is different than the rest of us. He sometimes creates disturbances that require police intervention and walks the streets, day and night, long hair flying, arms gesticulating, and talking to everyone, anyone, and perhaps someone we can’t see. I do not think he is harmful to others, though I never make eye contact if he is walking toward me. Tom and I did it once and were informed that we were spawns of the devil and our water was contaminated through the rocks and that this house or that house were inhabited by evil minions . . . you get the picture.

    Ah, what conversations a well read book and well crafted book review inspires. Congratulations, Rachel, on finishing the book and getting your review done with sharp precision and on time. Well done.

    1. Thank you Penny! Yet another beautifully kind comment!

      How sad about your neighbour. One thing that has struck me very strongly in New York is the amount of actually insane people who wander the streets, seemingly with no medical or state assistance. They are literally ranting and raving, often with inadequate clothing on, and just left to wander and get cold and sick with no one to care for them. It is so sad. I wish I could do something for them.

      Thank you so much! It was a race to the finish line but I got there in the end! If only I was as athletic as I am bookish!

  9. A brilliant review. Rachel sounds a little like Elizabeth Taylor’s Angel. I sometimes find novels about mental illness and normality difficult to read – I’m thinking of The Yellow Wallpaper, but I think I must read this.

    1. Thank you. Yes, in many ways, she is, though certainly not as odious or domineering. Mental illness is not something I particularly enjoy reading about either, but I do find the cleverness of writers in portraying it convincingly endlessly fascinating.

  10. Wonderful post and now putting on my wish list with quite a few other NYRB titles this week. Is there some suggestion of family madness here too? Her mother, her aunt that goes mad in the house before her. All women. What reading possibilities here.

    1. Thank you Frances – glad to hear that you might be reading this soon! Yes, there is definitely an inherited streak of madness, though there is also the common link between these women of not having a man around. Now I think of it, I wonder whether Stephen Benatar is exploring the notion of the ‘hysterical’ (ie. sex starved) woman as ‘mad’ – her Great Aunt (spinster) goes mad, her mother changes once she is widowed and Rachel is also a spinster in every sense of the term…I wish I’d picked up on this before! Very interesting…

    1. Thank you Claire! I know this book would be right up your street. It is a bit Angela Carter-ish in places, with its carnival-esque bawdiness and strange imagery.

  11. I’ve looked at this one in the bookshop and it looks like it could suck me in, but then it just makes me a little too uncomfortable, so I’m still not sure about it. My husband might go in for it though, lately he’s been getting into books about seriously disturbed women, like Wetlands and The Piano Teacher by Elfriede Jelinek and just recently I mentioned A Kind of Intimacy (another unreliable narrator who’s deluded as to her abilities and attractions) to him, which he had to buy right away! When he finishes that, I’ll see if he’s up for another…

    1. It’s not a cosy read Carolyn! Maybe let the husband read it first and then he can judge for you – if you are in a comfort reading mood then I certainly wouldn’t recommend it! But it is an intriguing one for when you want to really think about what you’re reading. I keep coming up with theories days later and that’s what I call an amazing reading experience!

    1. I’m so glad you can get hold of this one Verity – I know you’ll find it very interesting. There is a snooty librarian in it as well, so perhaps it will count for your librarian challenge?!

  12. I am going to stop talking to myself right now! You raise an interesting point about whether someone trapped in a delusion can’t still be happy. I suppose it depends on whether we think being happy depends on others approving of our happiness and seeing us as happy. I can think of situations where that should be the measure of true happiness and the dleusion should be dispelled(for example if someone thinks they’re happy in their relationship, but the outside world sees emotional abuse going on) but is it kind to break the fantasy when reality wouldn’t be much happier for a person? Can all delusional people live happier lives in reality? Are we in the Matrix right now😉

    Rachel doesn’t sound that far away from the narrator of The Hopkins Manuscript, as he lives in this world where he is always right and the world is always in awe of him, any one who expresses their contempt for him is behaving oddly or rudely… His delusions are framed as normal (if rather pompous) and this book seems to be showing just how a little further into delusion land can end in madness.

    1. Well, this is a tricky one, isn’t it? I suppose really it depends on whether the delusion they live in is harmful to them or not. I have seen plenty of elderly people whose minds have deteriorated and they live quite happily in the past, and they have no sadness and no pain and are quite content, which makes it hard to think that they are any the worse of for being in the mental state that they are in. I think delusions of the non psychotic kind, however, are dangerous, and ones to do with abusive relationships definitely need to be dispelled.

      The Hopkins Manuscript is a book I’ve been wanting to read for a while. How interesting that this reminds you of it – I will have to remember that when I eventually get around to picking it up!

  13. Ooooh this sounds superb and really quite delightfully dark too yet whilst making a serious point. I am going to be adding this to my Christmas list for DEFINITE thanks very much Rachel, another wonderful post and one thats sent me in the direction of a book I would possibly not have heard about otherwise.

  14. Oh dear, I wish I could write such a wonderful post in a little over an hour! It takes me that long just to collect my thoughts.🙂 I’ve just recently brought this home from the library and look forward to reading it. It was mentioned by someone as similar to another book (in terms of an unreliable narrator who lives in a fantasy-ish type world) I’d just read.

  15. To me this book was outstanding. Made me step back and go “wow” – actually picked it up and read it again. Disturbing, yes. One of the best books I have read in a long time.

    1. I’m so sad more people haven’t read this, Julia! I’m so pleased you loved it so much – disturbing but a brilliant reading experience, certainly.

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