“Wish Her Safe at Home” by Stephen Benatar

Can a male writer ever really understand the way a female mind works? Can a female writer ever understand a male mind? Given how frequently I hear that penny-in-the-slot criticism of “He couldn’t create women” (although I rarely, for some reason, hear this criticism with the genders reversed), the answer seems to be “no”. Men are from Mars, and women are from Venus, don’t you know. And psychobabble, presumably, is from Uranus. Well – who knows! – maybe there’s something to it: I’m hardly an expert on these matters, after all. But it does seem to me that when individual populations have within them so bewildering a variety, then assertions of differences between populations must, at best, be treated with caution. Even if we are talking about traits that can be empirically measured (as is not the case when we are talking in general terms about how our minds work),  then we may make statements along the lines of “The mean of Population A is different from the mean of Population B”. But that in itself tells us nothing about the probability that samples drawn at random from Population A and from Population B will display similar differences. In short, “Men writers can’t create women” (or the lesser made criticism “Women writers can’t create men”) seems to me merely lazy criticism.

Of course, individuals vary, whether they be men or women. No two human beings are alike in terms of personality, in terms of the way they think, the way they feel, etc. And it is this infinite variety that ensures that writers will always come up with new stories, even when all the standard plotlines have long been exhausted. This is because each new story is about a new set of characters, and characters – people, individuals – are endlessly variable. But of course, to get into the mind of another character – to imagine what this world looks through another pair of eyes, filtered through another mind – requires a remarkable feat of the imagination. And this, I think, is one of the principal attributes that distinguishes the good novelist: a good novelist has the imagination to do just this – to enter into the minds of other people. The novelists I value most are all masters (or mistresses) of this art.

Stephen Benatar, a recent discovery I made on being fortunate enough to be in a bookshop where he was publicising his novels (see here), obviously has this skill. His second novel, Wish Her Safe at Home – recently reprinted by the prestigious New York Review of Books – is written from the perspective of a woman approaching 50. She lives a lonely life, without any real friends: she doesn’t seem to know very well either her colleagues at work, or even the other middle-aged lady with whom she shares her flat. As the novel progresses, we get a few glimpses into her past, which seems a catalogue of disappointments, frustrations, and loneliness. But even before we get these glimpses, it is obvious to us (though not to her) that she is socially maladjusted. We suspect that her colleagues possibly joke about her behind her back. At the very least, they don’t really know what to make of her.

This narrator – Rachel Waring – unexpectedly inherits an old, run-down house in Bristol from an elderly and long-forgotten-about aunt, and, against all expectations, instead of selling the house off, she decides to give up her job and move over to Bristol. In a strange city, surrounded by strangers, she becomes, we suspect (though we can never tell for sure) the intended prey of a money-grubbing couple. We know that, in real ilfe, we’d want to keep our distance from a person such as Rachel Waring; and this makes us suspicious of the motives of anyone who actually seeks out her company. But it’s hard to say: Rachel is so lacking in self-awareness, and so utterly unable to read other people and to interpret their behaviour, we have no real guide  to what really is happening. All we can say for certain is that Rachel is steadily but surely losing the ability to differentiate between reality and her increasingly feverish imagination. She is, in short, going mad.

As John Carey points out in his introduction (best read after the novel, incidentally), we are on Rachel’s side from the beginning. As we suspect the characters around her, we feel protective on her behalf. Rachel has a horror of suffering – not so much her own suffering as that of others: and we find, to our own horror, that she is cast adrift without any protection at all in a world that she is unequipped to understand, or to interpret. Slowly but surely, her fantasy takes over from a reality that she never could quite handle anyway. What had seemed at the beginning to be merely breezily eccentric soon, without any significant change in tone of the narration, metamorphoses into something quite dangerously unhinged.

This is, in short, a quite remarkable novel, written with all the skill and the assurance of a master. It was considered for the Booker in 82, but failed to make the shortlist: the chairman of the judges that year was John Carey, and he says that, in retrospect, he wishes he had given this book greater support. At least it is good to see Stephen Benatar getting – thanks largely to his own untiring efforts in publicising his work – at least a modicum of recognition: he deserves far, far more. The very fact that a writer of such obvious quality is still so relatively unrecognised brings home to me what a complete lottery the publishing business is.

My only regret is that, having finished the book on the commuter train, I joined some friends for a few drinks, and mislaid the carrier bag containing my copy. I have replaced it, of course – I like to have around me the books I love – but the copy I lost had been personally signed. Well, I hope, at least, that whoever finds it reads the book.

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4 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Caro on October 21, 2010 at 11:26 pm

    Posted by Caro on October 21, 2010 at 11:04 pm

    I am ignoring your War and Peace posts, Himadri, since I haven’t read this and hope to one day. I like to know a little about what I am going to read, but nothing too much. So in ten years’ time I will go back and hunt for this!

    In the meantime a couple of comments on other threads. You said, “Given how frequently I hear that penny-in-the-slot criticism of “He couldn’t create women” (although I rarely, for some reason, hear this criticism with the genders reversed)…”. I do at least recall a quite long thread on the BBC history boards where people were complaining about Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy on the grounds that a woman shouldn’t and couldn’t write about war. I recall Mike Alexander defending her vigorously. (Oh dear, something went funny and maybe I posted this half-finished by mistake. My apologies if it appears twice.)

    I don’t think the complaints are just one way. I do remember readin once that Jane Austen said she didn’t know how men talked when they were on their own and therefore she never had a scene where there were only men in it. I feel more that way about adults writing about kids; I wonder just how well many of them get modern dialogue between youngsters. Partly I also am aware that writers are more or less always articulate and literate with words in a way that many of the people they write about are not. I think I feel this more when I watch television. I certainly don’t know how young people talk when they are on their own (my kids have always spoken in front of me in ordinary language, though sometimes prepared to use vocabulary that is not quite approved of in our home), and I think for some sections of youth, it can change very quickly and be out-of-date. But I may be wrong about that.

    As regards Stephen Benetar I was surprised to hear his book had been long-listed for the Booker Prize. That must mean that he has been on the literary radar, so I would have expected that people would still keep an eye on his writing. The knowledge that he is self-advertising in the way you saw suggests that is not the case. (Must say I would run a mile if someone approached me like that in a shop. I get bothered that I will never get away from them.)

    I keep meaning to reply to your desert island disc bit, but as I don’t know classical music it would be a rather sort post! So I will just mention here one or two very good and not childish modern movies. Perhaps highest among the ones I have seen (and we don’t really do ‘gritty’ in our household) was Pan’s Labyrinth, a mixture of war, torture, family relations, fantasy and all seen through a child’s eye, but very much an adult movie. Set around the Spanish Civil war. I don’t think Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan could be considered a childish movie either, though it may have lost its focus somewhat after the strong first 20 minutes. Jane Campion’s The Piano, also with a strong child part, did not pander to sentiment either. Most of the movies we like tend to be ‘small’ and not perhaps with the depth you would want, but I think there are plenty of films of depth out there. The Hungarian one, Four Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days about a girl seeking an abortion in 1970s Hungary required something of a strong stomach but was a great comment on the struggles facing people in difficult situations where the ordinary person and their concerns are not considered by authorities.

    I think there are plenty of good strong movies out there – they may not always make the mainstream theatres, but they are being filmed.

    Cheers, Caro.

    Reply

  2. Hello Caro, sorry to have taken so long to getting round to answering you. I think I’m just getting lazy in my old age!

    First of all, you’re right, in that accusations of not being able to create characters of the opposite sex are by no means one way traffic. But – perhaps it’s my imagination – it does seem to me that they are more frequently made one way than the other. But I may well be wwrong on that. I still think that whichever way it’s made, it’s an unthinking criticism, because, firstly, it assumes that the difference in gender is the most salient of features that deparate human beings one from the other; and secondly, it seems not to recognise that getting into the minds of characters different from one’s own is precisely th enovelist’s job. Ther does seem to me to be a lot of nonsense talked about a novel being essentially “*self* expression” (my emphasis), and I really don’tthink it is. If we push to the mimit this idea that one can’t really write about people very different from oneself, then why sytop at duifferences of gender? Why not go the full length, and say that novelists cannot depict people of different ages, of different races, classes, cultural backgrounds, etc.? And soon, the novelist is left with being able to write about no-one except themselves. And even then there will be problems because, as Shakespeare’s Brutus reminds us, “the eye sees not itself”. By making this accusation, we are really denying novelists the very skill that is, in essence, atthe centre of their art.

    As for Stephen Benatar, I felt under no pressure at all when he approached me in the bookshop for the firsttime. He walked away immediately, so as not to pressurise me in any way. I could very easily have putthe book down, and walked away. But I’m so glad I didn’t. And yes, it is particularly sad that a novelist of such quality could have a number of books published, and even considered for the Booker, and still find himself having to go to such lengths just to keep his works in circulation. It makes you wonder how much other fine stuff there is that disappears from view. This is why it particularly annoys me when stuff that is actually badly written – sometimes badly written to the point of being “inept” – are not only published, but given prominence (reviews in broadsheets, etc). But I have ranted about this in the past, so let’s not go there again.

    As for films, I am afraid that with all my other interests and commitments, film-going has dropped out of the bottom, as it were. And just about every film that turns up in our local cinemas are of the mind-numbing populist variety: when I was growing up, mainstream, popular films contained drama of great quality, but that is really not the case any more. I am sure that there is still fine stuff available, but I really don’t have the time or the patience to search it out. However, I am coming round to seeing some fine films – of the past and the present – on DVD.

    I write this over a Saturday morning croissant & coffee: time for another coffee, I think! All th ebest for now,
    Himadri

    Reply

  3. I thought that this was a remarkable book, but my reaction to it was a bit different. My sympathy was for the people who had to deal with her–after all she’s safe in the cocoon of her own madness whereas some of the people she deals with are hampered by social situations or politeness (thinking about the chemist shop here). Customers can behave in a bizarre fashion and those behind the counter have to allow some leeway for their behaviour. Most of the other characters had no idea where Rachel was coming from–was she just eccentric, lonely etc…

    Reply

    • I suppose it’s a feature of a narration from the perspective of someone so lacking in judgement that the reader has to read between the lines, and make judgements for themselves. Often, this judgement runs counter to the narrator’s own judgement.

      The people Rachel Waring encounters are, on the whole, polite but embarrassed – as I think I’d be were I to encounter her. But it’s hard to determine the motivation of that young couple (I’m sorry – I’ve forgotten their names). It’s hard to imagine they come to visit Rachel because they enjoy her company: so why do they come to visit her? I can’t help suspecting the worst.

      I think I found myself worrying about Rachel simply because she was so utterly vulnerable. But as you say, she is increasingly coccooned in her fantasy world, so she does not perceive the true nature of what is happening.

      It really is a remarkable novel, and it’s good to see it is getting at least something of the reconition it deserves.

      Reply

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