Signs of Life by Anna Raverat

Published by Picador.

‘Beginning this book, there is something you should know. This is not a confession.’

Ten years ago, Rachel had an affair. It spiralled out of control and left her and her life in pieces. Now, writing at her window, she tries to put those pieces back together.

She has memories, recollections of dreams, and her old yellow notebook. More than anything, she wants to be honest.

She knows that her memory is patchy and her notebook incomplete. But there is something else. Something terrible happened to her lover. Her account is hypnotic, delicate, disquieting and bold. But is she telling us the truth?

It had to happen at some point this reading year, at some stage I was bound to come across a book which in all honesty I had trouble finishing – but I did finish it on the understanding and belief that the payoff would come in the closing chapters. Unfortunately, for me, although Rachel’s tale of troubled relationships with the two men in her life is rounded off by the end of the novel, I closed the book disappointed.

Normally I love tales in books and in movies where the story is told in shattered fragments and where the closing scenes make me reflect on all that has gone before, how clever the tale was spun and how much I need to read or watch again to see just how cleverly the broken up story was sewn back together in the clarity of the closing chapters. For me, however, Signs of Life didn’t work as a sum of its parts. Throughout the novel, which is told almost in diary form interspersed with sections from other works of fiction and poetry, there are a scattering of good sections, some good scenes, particularly of Rachel’s interaction with the builders on the scaffold opposite her flat. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a hook, despite the fact that it was clear that there was something she had to tell – it was the searching for this hook that made me continue throughout the pages, so I guess in some way the book must have worked for me as there were several occasions when I came close to abandoning it, and yet carried on.

That may be a personal trait, however, as I cannot recall the last time I gave up on a book, and have never walked out of a movie either, always feeling that I’ve gotten past the point of investing enough of my time to see it through to the end.

The book, its theme and style are perhaps best summed up by this passage:

‘The unfinished book puzzles me: If it was no good then why had she read so much of it, and, having got so far with it, wouldn’t she want to finish it first?’

or

‘After most of my long days at work, I would drive back at the flat, pour myself a glass of wine or vodka and read, mainly short stories and poetry. I wasn’t reading novels because I didn’t want that kind of continuity; I didn’t want to carry over any part of any narrative from one day to the next.’

Maybe coming so soon after such gripping fragmented psychological novels as SJ Watson’s ‘Before I Go to Sleep’ and Elizabeth Haynes’ ‘Into the Darkest Corner’ didn’t do this reader any favours when it came to expectations for this novel but, as it’s getting a lot of coverage and praise in other more literary corners, I can only speak for my own views on the book.

Keith

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