Anna Raverat: Signs of Life (2012)


Ten years ago, Rachel had an affair. It left her life in pieces. Now, writing at her window, she tries to put those pieces together again. She has her memories, recollections of dreams, and her old yellow notebook. More than anything, she wants to be honest. Rachel 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?

A review on Litlove’s blog a few weeks ago led me to Anna Raverat’s novel Signs of Life. I’m glad I discovered it, I liked it very much,

Ten years ago Rachel had a disastrous love affair. She was in a relationship with Johnny, content and maybe a bit bored. Carl was new in Rachel’s company. She wasn’t really attracted, Johnny was far more handsome, but maybe she sensed Carl was a “bad boy”, maybe she wanted to escape routine. One evening they kiss and from there they slide into a passionate affair, even though Rachel doesn’t really want that.

We know from the beginning that things go horribly wrong in the end but we don’t know what happened. Even Rachel doesn’t know everything. At the end of the affair she has a breakdown. She is hospitalised; trauma, stress and medication blur everything. Now, ten years later, she decides to write down the whole story, tries to make sense.

The story Rachel tries to write down is fragmented because her memories of what happened ten years ago are fragmented. And that leads us straight to one of the major topics of this novel. How does memory work?

Perhaps it never did snow that August in Vermont; perhaps there never were flurries in the night wind, and maybe no-one else felt the ground hardening and summer already dead even as we pretended to bask in it, but that was how it felt to me, and it might as well have snowed, could have snowed, did snow. Joan Didion

Might as well have; could have; did. The movement from possibility to certainty in the sentence is exactly how it works in the head; this is how imagination merges with memory, how dreams get confused with facts; why reality sometimes feels so unreal. The extract is from Joan Didion’s On Keeping a Notebook. It unlocked my own imagination; something in me resonated strongly and I wanted to use that, the feeling of recognition, almost of ownership, when you read something and think, that’s exactly the way I feel! And a feeling of entitlement slips in. I started with her line, took some words of, pegged others on – I wanted to absorb the sentence fully, make my own version.

The narration jumps back and forth in time, and precisely this fragmentation is what I liked so much. We don’t only discover a story, we discover how memory works. How things are altered, embellished, imagined.

The result is authentic. We take part in discovering the truth. Rachel took notes during the affair but she left out a lot. Reading was and is important to her. The books and stories she reads influence the way she perceives what happens. The final tale she tells is a patchwork made of different material.

Signs of Life is fascinating and gripping at the same time.  The end was to some extent what I had expected but still surprising enough to be memorable. And we wonder whether Rachel is not after all a very unreliable narrator.

I’m often annoyed by book covers so it’s worth mentioning what a great exception this cover is. It’s rare that a cover fits a book so well. How to better represent a fragmented story than by using a collage of photos that illustrate various moments in the book. The only pictures missing here are that of a cat and of a woman writing.

Apart from depicting how memory works, Signs of Life is an excellent psychological study. It shows how some choices may alter our lives forever and that we are not always fully in charge. Intense emotions may push us to do things we don’t want to do and we may find that our life has fallen apart, is shattered and broken.

25 thoughts on “Anna Raverat: Signs of Life (2012)

    • That’s a good question but then nobody could be relaible. I think in this case there is doubt as to whether she lies about the end or not.
      I have my doubst she was truthful.
      I’m sure you would like this.

  1. I am so very glad you liked this one. My feelings about it were exactly the same – I thought it was a very good psychological portrait, and an intriguing inquiry into memory and narrative. Love your review.

    • Thanks, Litlove. I’m glad you reviewed it. I’m still astonished that some people had the type of reactions you described.
      I loved the way she explored memory, how she integrated other texts, poems. I’m going to read Didion’s essay soon.

  2. The topic of memory gets more and more interesting to me as I get older. When I was younger I think that I would not understand everything that wrote as well as the topic of this book about fragmented memory.

    This is another book that I now want to read.

    • I think that the older we get the more we see that we chose which memories to keep. I’m occasionally astonished when I read old diaries and see that I experienced things in a different way than I remembered. A bit scary too. What about all the things we forget and have not written down? I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on this.

      • I agree that to some extent we put aside certain memories and let them fade.

        All sorts of other things go on too. I have a bunch of old friends and we sit down and talk about old times it seems that we have all different recollections of how things happened. In particular I find that folks sometimes remember certain incidents as having occurred together but that really happened years apart.

        • I think that has also to do with the fact that we pay attention to different things. A frined of mine can keep every date in his head while i can remember conversations very well. And, indeed, when you compare memories you see how we all distort them a litlle bit. I find that scary sometimes.

  3. This sounds like something I would enjoy a lot. I agree–the cover is perfect.
    I would imagine that memories get edited if you’ve done something you’re really not proud of. Denial would have to play a role there.

    • I agree, I think we edit all of our memories but the more painful they are, the more we do it. I could imagine you’d like this.
      The cover really is perfect, isn’t it?

  4. I usually find unreliable narrators very intriguing. They certainly make the reader dig deeper to wonder how much of the story is being relayed correctly. I think I like this kind of narration best when it is unintentional – the narrator isn’t purposely withholding information. Maybe it’s due to the character’s age or perspective that he cannot report on the events of the story accurately. Or it could be due to a trauma as in the case of this story. I imagine this is very tricky for an author to write in a convincing way, but also very rewarding.

    • I think she did a great job, it feels constantly like reading a real person’s notebooks. It is painful at times and fascinating as well. I didn’t even realize at first the narrator is unreliable as she seems to not know it in the beginning. She discovers it later.

  5. Wonderful review, Caroline! This looks like a very interesting book. The way the book explores the different facets of memory is quite fascinating. I loved that passage you have quoted about the movement from possibility to certainty in one sentence – so beautiful! I used to think that memory became unreliable when we became grandparents, but recently I discovered that one of the things which I thought happened one way – what I believed for years – actually happened in a different way. I couldn’t actually believe it. I liked Emma’s philosophical point that if someone writes from memory and memory is unreliable, then how can that person be a reliable narrator 🙂 Thanks for introducing this new author to us.

    • Thanks, Vishy. I could imagine you would like this book as well. I loved that she integrated other writing, it made it fel so realistic. The narrator is a perosn for whom literature is important. I could realte to that very well.
      I have a very good memory but I know I don’t remember everything like some people do. And often I must think I remember and when I compare memories with someone else, I see I’m wrong. But looking back on my life, some things stand out as if I’ve only lived a few hundred days/events. What happened to the rest….
      Yes, Emma, had a point.

  6. Sounds like one I would enjoy. I love a good character study and I’m fascinated by memories. They are so powerful and yet also very elusive.

    • I don’t think it’s your cup of tea or only to some extent. It’s interesting how she writes about memory. It’s not a memoir but it is written like a memoir, very authentic.

  7. I also bought this on Litlove’s recommendation and am glad to hear you liked it as well. Now I am looking forward to reading it all the more. I love this sort of psychological portrait!

  8. It sounds fascinating! I love the premise, but also the psychological bits. Now you’ve intrigued me, much as Lit love intrigued you. You both write such excellent reviews/blogs.

  9. Pingback: Best Books of 2013 | Beauty is a Sleeping Cat

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