Mad House: Stephen Benatar’s Wish Her Safe at Home
When middle-aged office drone Rachel Waring unexpectedly inherits a Georgian townhouse in Bristol from a great-aunt, she feels rejuvenated, like a teenager going to Paris for the first time, and decides to use the opportunity to turn her world around. She quits her job, leaves her shabby London flat share, buys a chic new wardrobe, flirts awkwardly with local men in her new town, and resolves to live a life of leisure and creativity. Most novels would take this Cinderella story through to its natural conclusion, tracing Rachel’s blossoming as she finds love, happiness, and fulfillment. This is not that novel.
Instead, Stephen Benatar’s Wish Her Safe at Home is the uneasy story of a woman who narrates her own gradual descent into madness, but remains merrily unaware of her growing instability. On learning that a young eighteenth-century philanthropist once owned her new home, Rachel immediately sets out to write his biography, but instead spins a fantasy of a Regency romance between her — she sees herself, variously, as Vivien Leigh or one of Leigh’s characters — and the long-dead young man that becomes increasingly real to her. Often compared to the similarly whimsical Little Edie Beale of the Maysles brothers’ “Grey Gardens,” Rachel is the utmost in unreliable narrators, her chipper tone and heightened imagination constructing a Technicolor filter for someone living outside the realm of reality. As her mental state becomes unsteadier, the book’s title takes on more urgency; home is the last place for Rachel to be safe. And yet, as she remembers her mother saying of her eccentric great-aunt, “She’s perfectly happy. There are many who’d even envy her that type of madness.”
First published in 1982 and reprinted in 2007 (Benatar famously visits bookstores to hand customers his novels before gently retreating to let them make a decision), Wish Her Safe at Home is a deliciously unsettling black comedy of grippingly mundane horror, where madness encroaches with the slow, unerring approach of a zombie.