Signs of Life by Anna Raverat (2012)
Beginning this book, there is something you should know. This is not a confession. This is something I am writing; something I am making out of something that happened. Ten years ago I had an affair that ended badly... With these irresistible lines begins the troubled, fragmented, and unreliable account of Rachel, the narrator of this melancholy and brilliant little book. Her story is a series of memories charting her emotional history, primarily focused around the affair she had with an unstable colleague, Carl, while (and after) she was in a serious relationship with Johnny, a calm, gentle man she met in her teens. But what really happened, why has Rachel ended up living alone in a high-rise flat where she writes and watches the workmen in the building opposite, and why does she feel compelled to write this 'non-confession'?
I don't always like writing reviews of books I adored. Really, all I want to do is spew out a stream of incoherent babble, culminating in 'this is AMAZIIIIING, read it NOW' - I think the best qualities of great books are sometimes indefinable, or at least very subtle, and it's easier to be coherent about something that has glaring flaws. This is, quite simply, a beautifully written book with a fascinating narrator and an original, inventive structure. Rachel's recollections skip back and forth through time, moving through her relationship with Johnny, the affair with Carl and her present-day situation in an apparently random fashion. The narrative is written as one might really recount one's past - it seems like Rachel is writing down memories as they come back to her, but as the story progresses, a pattern of hidden secrets and uncertain details emerges. Rachel even admits that she is embellishing her tale at points, and although there are few surprises due to the non-linear nature of the book, there are choice moments when shocking revelations are delivered in a calm, cool tone. The book is rich with sumptuous, poetic prose and striking imagery, while remaining totally believable as a personal account.
I should qualify my review with a warning that I don't think other readers will necessarily love Signs of Life as much as I did. There's a bleak undercurrent to everything that happens, illustrated most obviously in the time Rachel spends with Carl, but subtly pervading the rest of the story too. I took to Rachel straight away because she seems so human - flawed, uncertain, full of guilt, more vulnerable than she realises but sometimes selfish and devious too - but I doubt everyone will have the same reaction to her. The book has been much compared to Zoe Heller's Notes on a Scandal, and I can certainly see the similarities, though I wouldn't say Rachel is anywhere near as calculating as Barbara Covett - she is sucked into events surrounding her rather than having a hand in controlling their outcome. I've found it very interesting to read through other reviews of Signs of Life and see that so many people found Rachel unlikeable. Did I feel differently because I saw something of myself in the character (as was the case with Barbara in Notes on a Scandal) - or is it simply the fact that she's a woman who is unfaithful, something that so many find so repulsive, that has turned other readers off?
I thought this book was absolutely brilliant, sublime, near-perfect. It's quite short and could be read in one sitting, but I preferred to work my way through it bit by bit, savouring the gradual uncovering of the truth. I found both style and content so delicious that it was much more satisfying to read a chapter at a time than to power through it. It's a shame that this is a debut, because I'm desperate to read more of Raverat's work... But on the other hand, this just gives me something to really look forward to when she publishes her next book. Please let it be soon.