Wish Her Safe at Home

Wish Her Safe at HomeDo you ever rehearse conversations you plan to have—or wish you’d had—in your head as you’re driving down the road or walking down the street? Have you ever caught yourself speaking the words aloud, even right in public?

Oh, just me then. Or me and Rachel Waring (which doesn’t bode so well for me, I think).

Rachel Waring spends a lot of her time in a dream world, imagining how things ought to be or what she can do to increase her happiness. When this novel by Stephen Benatar begins, she’s just inherited a house in Bristol from her great-aunt and, at age 48, she takes advantage of the opportunity to quit her London job and move into this new home. Her lively imagination makes it easy for her to see the potential in the run-down house and in her new life.

Previously, of course, I had often discovered the secret of happiness: courage on one occasion, acceptance on another, gratitude on a third. But this time there was a rightness to it—a certainty, a simplicity—which in the past mightn’t have seemed quite so all-embracing. Gaiety, I told myself. Vivacity. Positive thinking. I could have cheered. Still sitting at my table in the empty cafe I knew that concerning the house I had made the right decision. Bristol, me with a new start. London in my imagination had now become grey; maybe always had been? Bristol was in flaming technicolor.

You don’t have to be an especially alert reader to realize that Rachel’s gaiety and vivacity make her appear a little odd. She’s prone to engaging strangers in intense conversation and making sudden bizarre comments that make sense only to her—and to the readers who have access to her thoughts. The book was published in 1982, but Rachel’s cultural references come from old movies and Disney films, making the book and Rachel herself seem out of time. There are just enough mentions of then-modern conveniences, such as a video recorder, to make it clear that Rachel is the one who exists in a different era.

Rachel’s positive thinking means ignoring the bank statements indicating her account is overdrawn and continuing to spend money as if there’ll be no limit to her funds. One marvelous scene has her in church imagining herself having all sorts of interactions with the vicar—or is she imagining them? As readers, we’re kept inside Rachel’s head, and there, reality and fantasy are one and the same. If she can’t tell the difference, neither can we.

It’s possible to sketch out a general outline of Rachel’s life, based on the information she shares. To get at the truth of what the various events mean (and which ones really happened), we must read between the lines. There’s reason to believe that she’s been badly treated, and she’s certainly easy to take advantage of. But positive thinking does not always mean positive actions, and Rachel’s delusions become increasingly sinister as the book goes on, leaving us to reconsider others’ treatment of her.

In the introduction to the NYRB edition, John Carey writes about how the first-person narration keeps us rooting for Rachel. Personally, I didn’t experience that. I was fascinated by her. I kept wondering what she’d do next. But I wasn’t sure I wanted her to get her way. (Maybe it’s because early in the novel she interrupts a woman reading quietly in a tea shop!) I did want her to be safe from herself and from others, but what does it mean to wish someone safe? Does it mean wishing her safe at home? For Rachel, perhaps not.

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14 Responses to Wish Her Safe at Home

  1. Jeanne says:

    I loved this character and wanted to wish her safe. I identify with her, early on, and compare her to Blanche Dubois. But as I said in my own review, seeing her life play out answers questions I had about Blanche, and tells me more about why her tragedy is inevitable.
    As I said, “If wishing her safe at home would work, you’d wish it every time she goes out in public and makes a fool of herself. “

    • Teresa says:

      One of the ingenious things about this book is how easy it is to identify with her early on. I’ve been known to sing or chatter to myself when out for a walk and wondered what people thought of me if they happened to notice.

  2. Ah, yes, the conversations I wished I had had (instead of the ones I had!). What poet is it who said something about “remolding [the world] nearer to the heart’s desire”?

    • Teresa says:

      I’m always “rewinding” conversations later on and rewriting them to suit myself. The narrator in this book takes it to a whole different level, though!

  3. Scott W. says:

    While I greatly appreciated this book, and even find some of Rachel’s ramblings running on loop through my own head, I can’t help but think of it as a horror story.

    • Teresa says:

      Yes, me too! On a couple of levels. There’s Rachel losing her already tenuous grip (and what that leads to) and the suggestion of what happened to her mother (and thus what could happen to Celia).

  4. Jenny says:

    This is not even a little bit what I thought this book was about. (I thought it was one of those missing-single-white-female books.) I think I’ll put it on my list; it sounds very much like something I’d really enjoy.

    • Teresa says:

      I can see where you’d get that idea from the title, but it’s not at all one of those books. I think you would like it–it’s pleasingly unsettling.

  5. I really loved this book! I think it’s one of the more brilliantly crafted novels I’ve come across. The evolution (and devolution) of Rachel is something truly remarkable to behold…So much like watching an accident happen, where it makes you cringe to witness it yet you find you can’t look away. In fact, some scenes from it are still quite vivid in my mind. Definitely a must-read if one enjoys a spinster story! Reminds me in many ways of Bernice Rubens’ Favors (aka A Five Year Sentence). I’d recommend that one just as much!

  6. Stefanie says:

    Ooh, I like the sound of this one! I conversations in my head all the time. At least I hope they stay in my head!

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