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.