Like most people, I had never heard of the American expatriate writer, Rachel Ingalls, but unlike most people, I was fortunate enough to have a copy of her 1983 novel, Binstead’s Safari, show up at the door. I started reading it and before day was done I was turning the last page and moving on to Mrs. Caliban, Ingalls’s most famous novel—relatively speaking. First published in Britain in 1982, it was chosen four years later by the British Book Marketing Council as one of the twenty greatest post-World War II American novels by a (still) living writer—but after a flurry of interest it pretty much vanished from sight for three decades or so. In her introduction to the reissued edition of that extraordinary novel, Rivka Galchen writes, “Rachel Ingalls falls into that category of writers who are famously not particularly famous, even as they are somewhat famous for their mysterious lack of fame.” This lack of fame business would be very odd, except that Rachel Ingalls — like Barbara Pym, Penelope Fitzgerald, and Elizabeth Taylor — is funny in an exceptionally dry way, in a way that does not appeal to readers who like things spelled out.
Then of course there is the fantastical aspect to both novels, which, when combined with their tart, understated social comedy, puts them smack dab into sui generis territory. Mrs. Caliban is, in part, the story of a woman who falls in love with a sea monster and Binstead’s Safari involves a woman who falls in love with a man who is, in some way, very likely a lion as well. Unless you actually read the books you would be inclined to think that they consist of whimsy run amuck; but part of the brilliance of both lies in the way Ingalls captures the everyday bathos of a neglected, hard-done-by wife and then turns around to startle us with an almost festive regeneration through a relationship with an impossible creature.
This is the way Mrs. Caliban begins:
Fred forgot three things in a row before he reached the front door on his way to work. Then he remembered that he had wanted to take the paper with him. Dorothy didn’t bother to say that she hadn’t finished with it yet herself. She just went back and brought it to him. He dithered for a few more minutes, patting his pockets and wondering whether he ought to take an umbrella. She told him the answers to all his questions and slipped in several more of her own: would he need the umbrella if he had the car…?
And so on. The theatrical production of Fred-sets-out-for-work unfolds further, the finale being his informing Dorothy that he may be back late: “Something about—I don’t know yet, but I’ll call from the office.”
The novel’s third major player appears on the scene as Dorothy is dutifully preparing a meal for Fred and a guest he has sprung on her. She “was halfway across the checked linoleum floor of her nice safe kitchen, when the screen door opened and a gigantic six-foot-seven-inch frog-like creature shouldered its way into the house and stood stock still in front of her, crouching slightly, and staring straight at her face.” This is Larry. Even though Dorothy has heard frantic news reports about a monster having escaped from a research center, killing two attendants in doing so, there is something about this fellow that causes her hand to move away from her sharpest knife to a stick of celery, which she offers him—and so begins one of literature’s great love stories.
If you have seen Guillermo del Toro’s film The Shape of Water this may sound familiar—woman and water monster fall in love. Yet that is where the similarity ends: That film is overtly surreal and hypersaturated with color, where this novel’s sensibility is gloriously low-key even as weirdness abounds. Larry’s wardrobe, his meals, his tastes in television and music are noted with a matter-of-fact air, as are his pragmatic ethical standards. (He tends to kill people who cause him problems.) The novel darkens toward the end—but I will say no more.
Millie Binstead is the wife-as-doormat at the center of Binstead’s Safari. She is married to Stan, an anthropologist and a know-it-all par excellence, his views shaped we soon see by currents of self-satisfaction, the presumptions of his discipline, and his desire to prove a pet theory. Millie’s spirit has been crushed by the death of their five-year-old son, the death of her dog, and, above all, by Stan, who once loved her, but who has neglected her, belittled and disparaged her, and generally ground her down for years. She irritates the hell out of him, but it easy to see that he is a jerk. Against his druthers, Stan consents to allow Millie to accompany him to London and on to Africa where he intends to do field research on a paper on an East African lion cult.
In London Stan goes off with his friend Jack who has rounded up a couple of women for sexual hijinks. Millie gets her hair cut, buys new clothes, and gradually comes into herself. No longer wilting before her husband and the world, she finds herself popular and admired in Africa. Stan doesn’t know what to make of it and begins to find himself falling in love with her again.
It is pleasant for the reader to witness the blossoming of Millie, her renewed self-assurance, and her affair with a celebrated wildlife guide, a hero to the Africans and a man with a special affinity with lions—and perhaps something more than affinity. But nothing is so thoroughly rewarding and impressive as the way Ingalls conveys Stan’s view of the situation and, indeed, of his view of the Africans he is intent on observing. He gets everything wrong, and does so with the greatest confidence, always interpreting facts so they accord with his own opinions. The subtlety with which Ingalls captures self-delusion made me hug myself with joy.
Here, for instance, are Stan’s thoughts when Millie tells him she’s pregnant and that she wants a divorce. He is pleased about her condition, assuming (of course) that he is the father; it is up to him to straighten her out, taking into account her new assertiveness—which he, as a professional observer of human behavior understands better than anyone:
[S]he’d come to her senses. After all, she didn’t really mean it; this was a whim, like any other whim of a pregnant woman. She felt powerless to resist the force of nature within herself, so she was wielding as much power as she could over him. Better not say that either. A few years ago, he would have. He could have explained anything to her and she would just have said, ‘Yes, Stan.’
This novel, too, gravitates to darkness. How can it be otherwise with impossible love? Beyond that, I put Binstead’s Safari with Angus Wilson’s Anglo-Saxon Attitudes and Barbara Pym’s Excellent Women as one of the three greatest—and funniest—novels about the self-regarding world of anthropologists.