Unsettling slide into delusion
Unlike several wonderfully written novels, by women, which explore a journey into madness within the setting of a very dramatic scenario, this book, by a male author, writing inside the narrative head of his female character, charts a less spectacular, more ordinary – and so in some ways, more frightening, loss of sanity.
Benatar’s excellently crafted book, written a quarter of a century ago, has been reissued. His very ordinary woman (like I assume all of us – well I hope so for my own sanity!) exists partially in the external world where things happen to us, but always strongly in the internal world, where a running stream of replayed memories and conversations, both real and imagined, about the past and the future act as a commentary on our present. There is the image we present to the world, and the image of ourselves we build for ourselves. Some of that inner image may accord with what the world sees of us, some is fantastical. And we are fairly adept at maintaining the conflict in the oppositional stories we tell ourselves.
Benatar’s narrator is Rachel, a single woman, working in an office, with an rather unpleasant flatmate. Unexpectedly inheriting money she decides to live a little, up sticks, leave her job, and move from London to Bristol. She starts so well and fizzy, given finally the chance to live outside a stultifying routine. The journey of her character, and the book itself, is one where the outside persona, no longer needing to be maintained by virtue of economic necessity, begins to crack and crumble. Sometimes even joy needs the tempering hand of restraint.
Rachel, progressively frolics skips and slides into losing all boundaries between the most fantastical inner fantasies and the external world. Indeed the fantasies become so real she acts them out. Her particular delusions, at their most florid, have her always at the ecstatic. A disappointing, disappointed life is retold in sugar pink, happy Hollywood endings. Despite reality NOT being like that, Rachel repaints it like that, again and again.
Benatar’s gift is to take a rather ridiculous, self-absorbed ordinary woman, and make the everyday quality of her fall both believable and close – unsettlingly close to ‘us normal ones’ My guess is that many readers, particularly women, will feel a little edgy reading this. A bit like putting on wet clothes, or someone else’s shoes – things fit, but are just ever so slightly uncomfortable, so you are not quite at ease in your own skin any more.
We both laugh at, are amused by Rachel, and wince. Her vulnerability, her very oddness, is also ours.
A really well crafted balancing act.
A couple of the other books referred to at the start of this review :
Alias Grace ; The Madness of a Seduced Woman (the latter reviewed on this blog)
I resuscitated my review, and elaborated on it a little, as I was strongly reminded of this book whilst reading Susie Boyt’s The Small Hours, as there is a similar use of humour, similar luring the reader in to laugh at, in a kind of awareness of cruel horror at the laughter
I found Benatar’s account of the destructive results of dysfunctional parenting on the vulnerable young just that bit tighter and precisely crafted than Boyt’s, partly because the slide into ‘something wrong’ with the central character is dripped in more insidiously for the reader.