Thursday, October 3, 2013

Wish Her Safe at Home

Wish Her Safe at Home by Stephen Benatar is one of the most bizarre, unsettling, fascinating books that I've read in a while. It opens with fifty-something Rachel Waring unexpectedly inheriting a far-off house that belonged to a long-lost aunt. Instead of selling the house for a profit like all of her acquaintances expect her to do, Rachel decides to move into it, abandoning the office job and dismal shared flat that are the trappings of her mundane life in London. Initially, Rachel seemed to have traits in common with a typical Barbara Pym character and I thought a similar kind of story was about to unfold. But then, almost as soon as she moves into her new house, Rachel begins acting in ways that make me see her less like a Pym-esque woman to more like a disturbed Amelia Bedelia meets Muriel Spark's Jane Brodie.

Throwing herself into her surroundings, Rachel sets out to see only the positive in her new town and neighbors, interpreting them at their most literal and taking an overly optimistic view of everyone and everything she encounters. At first, her upbeat attitude seems kind of admirable. Even when her actions garner ridicule from others, Rachel finds a certain bliss in her ignorance. She also finds bliss in a portrait of a man who lived in her house many years before. After some research at the library reveals him to be local figure of minor historical significance, Rachel develops an interest in him that quickly grows into an unhealthy obsession. She hangs his portrait over her mantel, has conversations with him, and writes a fictional account of his life. She comes to believe that in a past life, she herself was the woman he loved and lost. Things take an even more uncomfortable turn when she finally reveals her "relationship" with him to her new friends in town, a group who already seems to be suspiciously intent on taking advantage of Rachel's generosity towards them. Once they realize how far removed from reality she is, events spiral further down hill.

Although that all might sound like a fairly direct progression of a character going insane, Benatar doesn't present things quite as linearly as that. Rachel's moments of madness are interspersed with moments of humor and clarity, when her feelings are relatable and her thoughts even verge on being wise. This makes her descent into madness all the more uncomfortable. Wish Her Safe at Home is a very strange novel, but one that I would recommend if you're in the mood for something out of the ordinary.

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