By Rachel Ingalls. (New Directions, 218 pages, $15.95.)
Rachel Ingalls, who died in March, is perhaps best known for “Mrs. Caliban,” her 1982 novel about a deeply unhappy housewife who falls in love with a giant sea creature. It is entirely believable, the way Ingalls tells it — matter-of-fact, occasionally funny, romantic, tragic. The fact that the woman’s lover is a 7-foot-tall green frog-like man makes him exotic but not bizarre.
Less well-known — and perhaps even better — is Ingalls’ 1983 novel, “Binstead’s Safari,” republished in February by New Directions. (New Directions republished “Mrs. Caliban” last fall.) This book, too, has an unhappy housewife at its center — Millie, a passive, worried woman married to a philandering mansplaining guy named Stan. Stan is an anthropologist, and when he decides to head to Africa to study a lion cult, Millie decides to go as well.
He doesn’t want her along — she’s dowdy and boring, he thinks, and she’ll cramp his style — but she is uncharacteristically insistent. During their stopover in London, she begins to reinvent herself. She gets a haircut, buys new clothes, begins going out and about on her own. And once in Africa, wow. She blossoms. She grows confident, charms everyone and falls in love.
Like “Mrs. Caliban,” “Binstead’s Safari” explores themes of loneliness, marriage, passion and impossible love. Impossible, but told in such a matter-of-fact way that the reader is entirely swept along.
Is Millie’s new lover a lion-human shape-shifter? Is he the key to the lion cult Stan is exploring? The deeper and darker this book gets, the more measured Ingalls’ tone becomes. The story gets progressively weirder but, like “Mrs. Caliban,” feels completely plausible.
“Binstead’s Safari” is a page-turner, a romance, a comedy, a tragedy, a domestic novel and a fish-out-of-water tale, with a bit of magical realism thrown in. It’s amazing and original, and it’s great to see it back in print.
The Death of Mrs. Westaway
By Ruth Ware. (Gallery Press, 368 pages, $16.99.)
An orphan who reads tarot cards on a dreary seaside pier to scrape out a living. A mean-spirited wealthy widow who leaves a mean-spirited will. A trio of well-heeled sons who can barely stand to be in the same room. And several tragic characters who have met untimely deaths. These are the figures that populate the pages of “The Death of Mrs. Westaway,” Ruth Ware’s latest tale of suspense, now out in paperback.
Though set in modern times, it opens with a Gothic feel. Harriet Westaway, or Hal, has turned 20 and is alone in the world, orphaned when her tarot-reading mother was struck by a car. Lacking any other training, Hal steps into her mom’s fortunetelling shoes, learning to read gullible customers’ inner thoughts and dreams. It’s just shy of a con game, and it barely pays the bills. When a lawyer’s letter arrives, Hal assumes it’s another demand for a bill to be paid. Instead, it’s an invitation to the beneficiaries of a will left by one Hester Westaway, whom the letter identifies as Hal’s grandmother. Hal knows this is a case of mistaken identity, but her financial desperation moves her to jump on a train to try to claim the “substantial inheritance.”
Arriving at the ill-kept mansion with the other living kin, it’s apparent this dysfunctional family has buried its secrets (and its hatchets) by staying apart. Through the uncomfortable reunion, Hal keeps up her masquerade as the family absorbs her as a long-lost niece, but the bad will comes rushing out as the vindictive matriarch’s wishes are made known. Soon all manner of threats, lies, betrayal and intrigue are rattling skeletons in the family closets.
The story keeps the suspense at an entertaining level and is a fine fourth card in Ware’s growing deck of thrillers.