‘Binstead’s Safari,’ by Rachel Ingalls. TNS
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 centre — 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.
Tribune News Service
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