Wish Her Safe at Home


Stephen Benatar's Wish Her Safe at Home is the most laugh-out-loud fun I've had with a book in a long time. Even if the laughs were accompanied by cringes; even if the fun was the kind that you can get peeking out from between the fingers you're holding up in front of your eyes; and even if I kept groaning and wincing as I compulsively turned the pages, the fact remains that I could hardly tear myself away from Benatar and his perilously deluded but always optimistic heroine, Rachel Waring.

Wish Her Safe at Home is the unreliable-narrator novel par excellence. We realize right away that Rachel is a bit off. It only takes a few more pages to realize that she is refashioning what we might call neutral reality into a universe that revolves around Rachel herself—a place where strangers in tea shops are fascinated to learn about her rocky relationship with her mother; a place where sermons are preached to her alone, and a chemist's banal chit-chat is a veiled promise of love and romance; a place of songs, dances, and encounters with new friends who are uniformly impressed with her singing voice, her fashion sense, and her elliptical, coded references to popular culture. Here she is, for example, at the christening of a friend's baby:

But then of course there were his friends, his and Celia's—I musn't lump them in with the rest—although surprisingly they weren't quite so easy to distinguish as I'd assumed that they were going to be.
       "Friend or foe?" I asked a tall and rather handsome young man whom I considered to be one of the likelier contenders. "In place of a Masonic handshake," I genially explained.
       "Excuse me?"
       "I mean, friend or...?" "Family," I had nearly said. Luckily at the eleventh hour I remembered my diplomacy. "Well, let me propound it to you in another way: if this were an invasion of the body snatchers would you be one of the bodies or one of the snatchers?" I laid my hand on his sleeve. At parties—well, especially at parties—it was always one's duty to be as entertaining as one could. "Of course, it does occur to me I'll have to examine your answer very carefully! For would a snatcher admit to being a snatcher? Wouldn't he try instead to palm himself off as a body?"

A lot of what distinguishes Rachel's voice can be seen here: her tendency to treat strangers she's just met as if they were in on some coded joke; Benatar's hilarious use of adjectives and adverbs ("I genially explained") to play up the difference between Rachel's perceptions and those of the people around her. In another great example of this, Rachel claims that she "executed a few unobtrusive dance steps" while waiting in line at the pharmacy. Do the people around her think her explanations genial or her dance steps unobtrusive? Does it matter?

Indeed, one of the most winning things about Benatar's book is that, despite careening ever more quickly along the slippery slope to utter mania, Rachel is hard not to like. Even though I am aware, while reading, that her version of events may not be "accurate," there is a part of me that prefers her sunny, magical version of the world to the one in which strangers in tea shops don't give a damn about one's mother, and banal shop chatter is just a way to fill the empty minutes. In her own mind, Rachel is some kind of mash-up of Scarlett O'Hara, Cinderella, and Gypsy Rose Lee, and spending time in her world is often a lot of fun, even if it's also intensely awkward when the reader is caught between his own perception (Rachel is acting radically inappropriate), and Rachel's perception (that she is acting like a gracious lady of the Georgian aristocracy/antebellum South/Broadway stage).

And in fact, Broadway musicals, along with Gone with the Wind, Pride and Prejudice, and occasionally a Tennessee Williams play, seem to make up the entirety of Rachel's cultural universe. When she trips through town with a song on her lips (which is often), and despite the book being set in 1981, that song is generally by Harry Warren, Jerome Kern, Noël Coward, Bing Crosby, or similar. As a childhood lover of Broadway musicals this was great fun for me personally, but it did give the novel a strange, unseated feeling: except for a mention of the royal wedding between Prince Charles and Diana, these events could have been taking place any time after the Second World War. This contributes to the feeling that Rachel is floating in her own mental stew, unmoored from any contact with the solidity of the present day.

It also made me wonder, at times, whether and to what extent Rachel should be read as a coded gay man. I certainly don't want to imply that gay men are the only lovers of the Broadway stage; far from it. But it is a genre often associated with the gay theater culture, and many of the great song- and book-writers have been gay or bisexual. Tennessee Williams, too, was a gay playwright who addressed themes of sexuality in many of his works, and Rachel identifies herself with his character Blanche DuBois. Blanche, like Rachel, descends into madness—in Blanche's case, after precipitating her husband's suicide by telling him that his homosexuality disgusts her. In telling her own story, is Rachel also trying to disguise male homosexuality by casting herself/himself as a straight woman? She does, throughout the novel, construct her own femininity in more and more outrageous ways, eventually reaching a point where she goes around perpetually clad in a wedding dress like a chipper, showtune-singing Miss Havisham. By this point she's definitely in drag, whether or not she is biologically female. So too, much of her lust for the young gardener and law student Roger, which on the surface is inappropriate because of their age difference and contractor/client relationship, mirrors the longing of a gay man for a straight man:

He was nicely tanned and muscular and worked without his shirt and though I kept being drawn towards the window of my bedroom I found him almost unbearable to watch; in particular the way he swung his pick when breaking up the concrete. And when I went to speak to him, to settle some fresh point or take him out a cooling drink, I was really afraid of what my hands might do. Fly up to feel the film of moisture on his chest? Fondle that coat of darkly golden hair? Dear Lord! The embarrassment! Whatever would one say? "Whoops! Please forgive me! I thought there was a fly." It was like experiencing a compulsion to punch a baby's stomach in the pram, or to use on someone standing next to you the carving knife you held.
       He was only twenty-one.
       But despite such unsettling irrelevancies I felt blest to have him there: somebody straight and vigorous and clean who might one day achieve eminence and who would certainly love widely and be widely loved, spin a web of mutual enrichment from the threads of many disparate existences: a beguiling web whose silken strands must soon make way for even me.

Is it coincidental that Rachel describes Roger, admiringly, as "straight" while thinking about how widely he will be loved? Would any of this have occurred to me had I not known that Benatar himself is gay?

I'm not sure if this reading is wildly off-base, but then again, Rachel herself is so out of touch with the divide between imagination and reality, that the reader is often unclear on which of the events she reports are actually true and which imagined. Given her obsession with the tropes of popular romance, it's especially hard not to look askance at events that might fit into those tropes. Even her inheritance of her great-aunt's Georgian mansion, which happens in the first few pages and precipitates the entire plot of the book, looks suspiciously novelistic—and yet, scenes that follow seem uncomfortably real. Similarly, Rachel tells a story of going to a party and wowing all the guests with her virtuosity at reciting Alfred Lord Tennyson's "The Lady of Shalott." It seems very unlikely that the party guests actually reacted as she reports, and yet a whole series of real-seeming events, some of them unflattering to Rachel, result from said reactions. Should we conclude that the entire string of events is imaginary? Or that the events happened, but the other people involved had different motivations from the ones Rachel assigns? Benatar does an excellent job of blurring the line between real and imagined, while at the same time making Rachel's descent into madness abundantly clear. And even as she disintegrates, I find myself hoping for the best for Rachel. I so enjoyed the time we spent together.


Wish Her Safe at Home was my fifth book for the Challenge that Dare Not Speak Its Name, and this review is my last-minute contribution to the NYRB Reading Week festivities. Thanks to Honey and Mrs. B for hosting!


  • I have a thing for unreliable narrators, and I've been meaning to read this ever since Aarti at Booklust alerted me to its existence earlier this year, but I keep putting it off because of, well, all those other books! A fascinating analysis, especially the part about Rachel's character mirroring the experiences of a gay man.

  • I have this but haven't read it yet--sounds great!

  • I read this in August because of Aarti, and I never got around to talking about it on my blog! I must say, I didn't love it as much as you: I thought it was really well-written, and I love unreliable narrators, but about two-thirds in I was so confused as to what was *really* happening (especially re: the house) that I got a wee bit annoyed. lol I'm still glad that I read it, and I enjoyed the first two-thirds tremendously. As you said, the humour was delicious. I was also in a bad mood while reading it for non-book-related reasons, so that might have affected my reading.

    I had no idea Benatar was gay, and it never occurred to me to read Rachel as anything but a heterosexual woman. But your alternative reading fascinates me, and looking back on the book I can completely see it being plausible. So I don't think it's wildly off-base, whether it's what Benatar intended or not!

  • Hello! I've just posted my review of this on my blog and I have to say I read it *slightly* (okay, very) differently to you. I guess it's my reading context, which I hope I acknowledge closely enough, but I actually think Rachel has crossed a very important line and is an incredibly vulnerable character in a big, bad world. She's out of control of her own mind, body and thoughts, and I found it unsettling reading to say the least. And I sort of hate to think of Rachel being laughed at by her readers - that Lady of Shalott scene was bad enough! I'm sure she was the laughing stock of Bristol, though. And quite oblivious. Sigh!

    You're bang on about the difficulty in identifying what's what though. And the new friends of hers -- I really wasn't sure what to make of them and their motives. They seemed to have her ivory-clad back in the end, but there were a number of moments when I was quite convinced they were taking terrible advantage of her.

    I found Benatar's female voice very interesting indeed, and really quite convincing for the most part. Maybe a little OTT at points.

  • I love unreliable narrators too and this sounds like a book I'd enjoy. I actually own it but just haven't gotten round to reading it yet. You've written a very interesting review. Thanks for joining NYRB Reading Week!

  • I am just discovering unreliable narrators, but this has been on my list for my own NYRB reading in 2011. I admit it was one of the books I was most excited about, if only for the cover, and you just made me more so!

  • I'm a fan of unreliable narrators, too, and I don't have this book yet, but I have it on my wishlist. I think this review is all I needed to make me buy it soon as I log on to Book Depository again. I have to say, I loved your reading of Rachel as a gay man, whether the character is or not. And the inclusion of Broadway musicals in this book can only make me enjoy it more, as I am a big fan of Broadway musicals myself.

    Thank you so much for this review and for joining our NYRB Reading Week!

  • Like others, I've been wanting to read this one for a while. It sounds similar to my NYRB book, After Claude. Both have narrators who live in a fantasy world, but this one sounds more and likable and more complex, if you can't always tell what is real. With After Claude, the line between reality and unreality is clear, mostly because the narrator's fantasies are more grounded in reality. And the narrator in After Claude is outright nasty (but hilarious).

  • May I join your burgeoning unreliable narrator fan club here? Fascinated by your likening of the protagonist to a gay man, a possible injection of authorial identity into his main character. Also relieved to read that you found this funny as that had been my impression from reading excerpts but then found it suggested elsewhere that it was a very dark piece indeed. A little of both is what I had hoped for and what you suggest. Always cautious about what I view as funny when compared to other readers. I can be somewhat of a sick one sometimes. :)

  • I'm looking forward to reading this. I need to be reading more NYRB books anyway, and I have heard superb things about this one. AND I like unreliable narrators.

  • What a FASCINATING view of this book! I never considered the gay man angle. I am not sure I quite buy it, honestly, but I also haven't read the book in quite some time, and it would at least be a really fun way to read the book going forward.

    I am glad you enjoyed this one- I LOVE this book :-) I will now also look into After Claude.

  • The first quote you pulled had me cracking up, and I really can't get over how similar this does seem to After Claude. Pretty weird, really. (And I'm glad you picked this one; it sounds genuinely fun even if I'm not going to pick it up right away, and before I was honestly so turned off by the cover...I don't know why, but I hate it).

    And I'm very intrigued by the "drag" and gay male angles.

  • I went back to my review to refresh my memory, although, of course, I've always been certain that I loved this book. So glad you loved Rachel Waring -- she's one of the best characters I've ever read, more so because I have a feeling I'll end up like her someday, haha. Even though gut tells me that I shouldn't trust her version of the events, as you've pointed out, it's impossible not to. I mean, it's impossible not to wish for these "delusions" to continue. As happy as Rachel is, as delirious as she might be, I really loved her, and I wanted her to be happy forever, haha.

  • Nymeth: Anyone who loves unreliable narrators would find this book interesting, but I think you'd also enjoy it for the commentary on constructed gender identity, whether or not you buy my somewhat tenuous Rachel-as-gay-man idea. Hope you enjoy it when you get around to it!

    Amy: I really enjoyed it! Hope you do too. :-)

  • Eva: You're right that it gets genuinely difficult to tell what's actually happening and what's not! Somewhere about 2/3 of the way through, I got this feeling of vertigo like ANY of the events Rachel has told us about could be false. I kind of dug that about the book, though. :-) But I can understand how it could exacerbate an already cranky mood.

    Jane: You're totally right that there is a quality of real darkness about the book, which I perhaps didn't get at enough in my post. I shared your ominous feelings about Roger, Celia and Wymark; I kept expecting them to be predators, but in the end it didn't really seem like they are...I left the novel feeling like, although Rachel definitely would be vulnerable to those looking to take advantage of her, the world as presented actually acts pretty kindly toward her. Of course, it's very hard to tell which of her information is real. I'll look forward to reading your post!

  • Mrs. B: And thanks to YOU for hosting, and motivating me to pick this up now rather than later!

    Iris: I remember you writing that you're just getting into unreliable narrators, and wow you have some treats in store for you! ;-) I hope you like this one when you pick it up.

  • fantaghiro23: Yay, another Broadway musical fan! You should have fun playing "spot the show." The song Rachel adopts as a kind of theme song is that "Keep Young and Beautiful" tune that Annie Lennox covered on Diva, but which I think was originally part of a Busby Berkely show. I also spotted "After the Ball," which I'm familiar with from Show Boat. Anyway, um, there's also a lot more to the book! Hope you enjoy it. :-)

    Teresa: Nicole posted about After Claude as well, and they do sound remarkably similar! Harriet sounds horrible and hilarious all at once; I'll be checking that book out in future.

  • Frances: Well now Jane has me feeling a bit bad for laughing so heartily at Rachel. But yes, for those of us with slightly sick senses of humor, I think you'll find a lot to chuckle at here even as you grimace and wince. I'd be curious to hear whether you buy my gay man theory at all once you read it - I think it's a bit of a stretch, but interesting to think about.

    Jenny: Sounds like this is a book for you! It really is a very satisfying example of the unreliable narrator technique.

  • Aarti: Haha, I'm not sure I buy it either, but I thought it would be worth bringing up. At the very least, the book certainly plays with the constructedness of gender and typical gender roles - Rachel's buy-in to all that Cinderella, someday-my-prince-will-come nonsense, for example, but also little details like how she freaks out about her unbleached roots showing in the final scene when her hat comes off. It's a very interesting novel!

    Nicole: I hate the cover too! So glad you said that. There's something very unsettling about it, which I guess is fitting given the content of the book. If you laughed at the first passage there's a lot more where that came from. A particular favorite of mine is early in the novel when she's trying to have a conversation with a deaf man in a train carriage about being drawn and quartered.

  • Sasha: Your review was the one that made me realize I should read this, so thank you! And I know what you mean about wishing/hoping Rachel can continue as happy as she is throughout most of the book, even if that happiness is founded on instability. She's just so charismatic, it's hard not to like her.

  • Oh, this sounds good! Onto my TBR list it goes.

  • Loved reading your review - I thoroughly enjoyed this book when I read it over the summer. You may be interested in my own review:



  • Oh, it's an honor to have introduced you to Rachel Waring.

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    link to Wolves 2011 reading list
    link to more disgust bibliography