In her head

Wish Her Safe at Home
by Stephen Benatar

This book surprised me. It had been on my wishlist for a long time but when I saw it at the library and recognised it from this discussion, the only detail I remembered was that it’s set in Bristol. Which seemed as good a reason as any to pick it up. But sadly, Bristol is not the focus of the book; really it could be set anywhere. Thankfully, the book has other things going for it.

It’s the story of Rachel, a middle-aged spinster living a dreary life in London until, out of the blue, she inherits a house in Bristol. On a whim she decides to move into it, giving up her job and abandoning her flatmate for a suddenly impassioned restoration project. As the book goes on it becomes clear that Rachel’s newfound giddy happiness and occasional sudden lows signal increasing mental instability.

It’s very cleverly done. The story is narrated by Rachel and at first you accept the complete change of attitude, her newfound confidence and ability to make friends. But the hints get stronger; the version of events changes from one telling to the next, and you start to question everything – not just whether it happened the way she first described, but whether it happened at all.

Conversely, I liked Rachel more as the book went on. Initially I found her a bit of a cold fish, possibly on the autism spectrum if her awkward encounters with strangers were anything to go by, but then she would reveal an awareness of being distant, possibly deliberately, that didn’t fit with that assessment. But later on, Rachel tries so hard to be happy and good and charming that when you see the cracks you feel bad for her, or at least I did.

One of the forms of Rachel’s mania is a tendency to quote or, more often, sing snatches from classic books, films or plays. She displays great knowledge on this score and often lost me (as indeed she would lose her audience, when she had one) as she jumped from one character to another. But through these quotes she sometimes expressed a truth that she couldn’t in her own words:

“‘I’ll tell you what I want. Magic! Yes, yes, magic! I try to give that to people. I misrepresent things to them. I don’t tell the truth. I tell what ought to be the truth. And if that is sinful, then let me be damned for it!'”
[From Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire]

In the end , this is a very moving account of mania from a time (1981) when people weren’t so familiar with terms like bipolar disorder and manic depression as we are now. I wonder if Benatar was a little ahead of his time, because this book deserves to have become far better known. I think this would make a fantastic book club read – there’s so much to discuss that I can’t raise here without revealing too much of the plot.

The edition I read (a 2007 reprint) includes an excellent introduction by the eminent John Carey, an illuminating essay that is far more insightful about this book than I could be. But I would still recommend you save that for after reading the book itself – let yourself enjoy the guessing game before you unravel it.

First published 1982 by Bodley Head. Reissued by the New York Review of Books.

SEE ALSO: review by Stuck in a book