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The Review - BOOKS
Published: 25 October 2007

Stephen Benatar
Return of Rachel, 25 years on

Wish Her Safe At Home. By Stephen Benatar. Wellbeck Modern Classics £7.99

RACHEL Waring is one of the oddest characters to grace contemporary literature.
But author Stephen Benatar, whose novel Wish Her Safe At Home considers the slow and lonely descent into madness of his heroine, denies he is responsible for her.
Instead, he claims, she created herself. “Rachel had taken me over,” admits Stephen, who lives in West Hampstead.
There is something in the character of Rachel Waring – something which is instantly apparent when you read the book, first published in 1982 and a Booker nominee – that makes the reader care deeply for her.
The tale runs like this: Rachel is a 47-year-old single woman, living in a shared flat in London, when she is left a house in Bristol by a great aunt. When Rachel discovers it was the home to a historically minor Bristolian philanthropist, she strikes up a relationship with him – 200 years after his death.
Narrated by Rachel as she pens the biography of her newly found beau, we are taken gently through her own collapse into reclusiveness and then mental instability.
But the gentle prose means the reader is never quite sure what exactly is happening to Rachel. You suspect her mental health is failing, but because the story is told from her point of view, you are never quite sure how badly muddled her thoughts are.
Oxford don John Carey recalls reading the book when chairing the 1982 Booker panel. He was suitably impressed, but surprised to find his fellow judges did not rate the book as highly as he did. He recalls how he scribbled notes on the tome: “Impressive study of woman going quietly and genteelly crazy.”
It is easy to understand the judges’ reaction. Wish Her Safe At Home is spooky, odd and brilliant.
Stephen Benatar, now 70, grew up in Marylebone High Street – the setting for the early years of Rachel’s life.
“I was inspired at first to write the book by the 1947 film The Ghost and Mrs Muir, starring Rex Harrison,” he admits.
Mrs Muir is the widow living alone in the West Country, who falls for the ghost of a ship’s captain.
“It stayed with me for years,” he says, and the product of this is Rachel.
Revisiting the book 25 years after it was first written, he has tweaked passages to make the writing crisper, but overall is proud of his earlier efforts.
“I remember sitting in the garden and my wife Eileen listened to me read out a synopsis. Afterwards, when the book was finished, she told me she had thought it sounded terrible, but she did not like to say so. If she had, I would have stopped there and then. Looking back at it, I am proud of Rachel.”

* Stephen Benatar will be signing copies at the Owl Bookshop, Kentish Town Road, on Saturday from 2.30pm

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