We all tell ourselves lies at some point or another to soothe our social anxieties, our awkwardness. "He's not staring at me because my dress is totally inappropriate for this party, it's because he's overwhelmed with desire." Or the favorite of mothers comforting their bullied junior high school children: "They're just jealous."
Rachel Waring lies to herself. A lot. The middle-aged, single (probably virginal) office worker and narrator of Stephen Benatar's novel Wish Her Safe at Home tells herself stories about how she could have been an actress, but in real life all she's got is a chain-smoking roommate and a cute boy at her job to fantasize about. That is, until her spinster aunt passes on and leaves her an old, decrepit house in Bristol. She can finally leave 1980s London, that lonely city of anonymity and gloom, and make a new start. Indeed, she doesn't simply envision her move as being to a new city, but to a nostalgic yesteryear that exists only in the old musicals she loves so much, a place where the sun always shines, neighbors pop in for tea, and it's perfectly normal to burst into song.
When it doesn't quite work out that way, the lies get deeper. A realization that her flirtation with the local chemist is one-sided triggers an elaborate romantic fantasy about Horatio Gavin, the abolitionist who occupied her house in the 18th century. The friction and disconnect between reality and Rachel's unreliable narration deepens as she tries to protect herself from loneliness and disappointment. Soon, it's unclear whether the scenes playing out in the novel are reality or fantasy, memory or make-believe.
Benatar never strays from the slightly dotty, lighthearted tone of Waring's thoughts — "Rachel-you-are-quite-a-girl!" she tells herself over and over — and yet there is a creeping darkness and dissonance that show tunes could never drown out.
The British writer Benatar is a sharp wit whose many quirky novels have been unjustly neglected in the States. Wish Her Safe at Home never made it to paperback after its initial appearance in 1982, and is only now being rescued from obscurity by NYRB.
With reports of how isolating modern life in the digital age has become, the book, nearly three decades after its original release, couldn't be more relevant. Benatar has written a surprising and piercing depiction of one woman's unraveling and the type of alienated urban life that can drive a sensitive soul to the depths of madness.