Wish Her Safe at Home has been on the TBR for a decade or more. I’m sure it arrived there courtesy of recommendation from a pre-blog literature forum. And, like Stoner, it lives up to all the promises. There’s also a connection to the second book I read for NYRB fortnight, in that a surprise inheritance enables the central plot.
When Rachel Waring inherits a Georgian mansion in Bristol, she decides to leave her dissatisfactory spinsterly existence, job and sourpuss flatmate in London behind. This is an opportunity and she grabs it with both hands. Throwing caution and her savings to the winds, she renovates the house, buys a new more colourful wardrobe and begins her new life as the lady of the house and writer. She wafts her way through her days singing songs from musicals and films, flirting with any man she meets, and extending good will and love to all.
Surely it’s the right thing to do, isn’t it? To try to face life with a song on your lips? Even if it can’t – not always – be a song in your heart?
Good for her, I thought, and I continued to do so for a little while. Rejoicing in her good fortune, laughing at her inane jokes, witticisms and inexpert flirting until I realised that there is something not forced, but off-kilter about Rachel’s cheeriness.
I’m trying to remember when the first warning bell sounded in my head. I think it was her blithe disregard of the bank manager’s letter advising her of a £15 overdraft. Then there are the memories of her controlling mother and her one and only fledgling romance, woven amidst her current high jinx. Memories of a time when real happiness might have been possible, and not, what transpires, to be the counterfeit joy of the present. For Rachel is avoiding reality (and a very dark secret from the past), play acting her role, losing herself in her imagination and fantasies, spiralling downwards from delightful eccentricity into utter delusion and absolute madness.
The choice of writing the novel entirely from Rachel’s viewpoint is inspired. It made me balance Rachel’s increasingly disconcerting behaviour and judgements against my own more – shall we say – savvy approach to the world. It made me worry for her, a woman alone with nobody watching out for her. Her substitute family, Roger, the gardener, and his wife Celia, are written with such ambiguity, that I’m still not sure whether they were motivated entirely by potential financial gain. (Though my immediate – admittedly crass – association with Roger, The Dodger, has to be some kind of clue.) Rachel’s lawyer tries to advise her well, but she is irrepressible in her desires.
How does the outside world view her? We only have Rachel’s word for this, but she reveals all in her naïvety. Her casual acquaintances never warm to her. Her invitations to tea are never accepted. And to be perfectly honest I don’t think I would have too keen either. There’s something manic in her conversational style. It’s no wonder that
He was staring at me but still not speaking. It sometimes appeared to me – particularly of late – that my conversations were getting progressively one-sided.
There’s nowhere for Rachel to go but inside her own head, and she’s no arbiter of its sanity. A meltdown is inevitable, and during it, Rachel makes an interesting observation.
And how everyone laughed – myself included! Indeed, the nature of everybody’s laughter had now altogether changed; even the schoolboy’s. All those dear hearts, they were laughing with me not against.
Well, I think they were laughing with relief. Nevertheless the question raised is interesting. Her neighbours may have done so, but, as a reader, I never laughed against Rachel. I laughed with her plenty. But then I stopped, because I realised this was never going to end happily. Yet, it ends as well as can be expected with Rachel finding a place where she will be (relatively) safe. If that sounds ambiguous and double-edged, it’s no more so than the whole of this entertaining and yet thought-provoking novel.