I really think I must give up reading the reviews on Goodreads. There is always at least one that is so misguided, so judgemental that I begin to think readers ought to fill out a questionnaire, or sit some brief test before they are allowed to take a book home. If this sounds excessive, indulge me for a minute and imagine this: you are sitting with a stranger and listening to a woman who gives a raw, painful account of a dreadful occurrence in her life, an event that had devastating consequences and which she still does not fully understand. But she is haunted by the fact that her own actions made her responsible, at least in part. How to come to terms with this crisis? The best she can do is try and tell the story as honestly as possible, in self-damning detail, and admit to the unreliability of memory. Afterwards, the stranger who has been listening with you purses up her lips and shakes her head. She says that she cannot but condemn everything that the storyteller has done, and doesn’t like to be around people who mess up in that sort of fashion, but hopefully now the narrator has learned a lesson and will treat others with a bit more consideration in the future.
We read books in a very private place in our heads, and speak more freely to them than to real people, but in doing so, we reveal a great deal about ourselves that might be better kept quiet. It’s not just the lack of compassion that bothers me about that Goodreads review, there’s an issue with comprehension too; this sort of response cannot be deemed an appropriate ‘reading’ of the story. It’s about filleting the events out, shaking them free of all the subtle, nuanced narrative in which they take their shape, and condemning them against a series of mental tick boxes. I can’t believe anyone who actually read the story, read each sentence and paid attention to it, and listened to what it was trying to say, could reach such a conclusion. What, then, would be the point of literature, whose basic tenet is to open us up to an experience of otherness, and to question our beliefs? Why bother with it at all if what matters most is hanging onto a stubborn, hypothetical idea of how life should be lived? Why bother if we lack the courage to face up to the inconvenient truths and the futile but inevitable sufferings in life? Lets all go and safely crochet some lovely antimacassars instead.
But perhaps I am being harsh on what is primarily a defensive mechanism. Maybe the reviewer who annoyed me so intensely was protecting her own self-righteous sense of being good and therefore free from the irrational cruelties of living. Maybe she was like those first-time mothers blessed with easy babies, who believe that their child’s docile sleepiness is the result of their own endeavours, and who are shocked when the second child yells all night. If you hoped that you were going to avoid all the pitfalls and crises of life by wanting the ‘right’ things and behaving according to the ‘rules’, then Signs of Life by Anna Raverat is going to challenge such comfortable illusions.
Rachel had an affair that ended badly and it left her life in ruins. She had a breakdown, a long period of adjustment and recovery, and now ten years have passed and she is trying to write an account of what happened. An event of such magnitude and significance cannot be assimilated into her existence without understanding, without coming to terms with its consequences and attempting to figure out the extent of her guilt. But the ten years necessary for distance have added to the distortions of memory. Fighting her own desire to avoid admitting to shameful things she did, struggling against the way that organising a narrative can add shape and structure to amorphous experiences, and piercing the fog of a memory weakened by drugs and trauma, she nevertheless tries above all else to be honest. The result is a fragmentary narrative, skipping backwards and forwards in time, and gradually building up to a horrifying climax.
Rachel thought she was happy in her relationship with Johnny, which was full of a cloying wholesome goodness. When she meets Carl at work she knows he is trouble, a damaged man full of disquieting intensity, and despite – or maybe because of this – she becomes involved with him. From the start it is a bad relationship, on again, off again, fraught with conflict and things Rachel doesn’t want. Although she is painfully aware that there is something dark, possibly uncomfortably wrong and narcissistic at its centre which she must have wanted very badly. The affair turns her into a person she doesn’t like, and makes her behave in ways she can scarcely admit. But Rachel knows that only the truth can save her; the question is whether the truth is something she can ever find, or ever articulate.
I thought this was a beautifully written book that had real moments of grace, often about the most confusing and elusive of human emotions:
I loved Johnny and yet I treated him so badly, while still claiming to love him, that I have to wonder whether I did love him at the point at which I started with Carl or whether my love had disappeared, like streetlamps fading into daylight and switching off without anyone noticing.’
Its preoccupation is with the way that sexuality in particular can turn us into people we do not recognise. Rachel’s story shows how doing the wrong thing can be experienced as a kind of sleepwalking, a stumble onto a moving walkway that transports us far further and much faster than we believed we could naturally go. And it frets away at the thought that the most intense and determining experiences of our lives may well be the most inexplicable, the ones where we cannot identify free will, or conscious decision-making, or even a clear desire. It’s a slow burner of a novel that gives the reader a drip-feed of information (and I was never confused by the chronological shifts), building up to Rachel’s final recounting of the end of the affair, the bad ending that caused so much trouble. All too often such climaxes can fizzle out, but this one was worthy of the appellation, even if Rachel does do one thing that seemed wholly irrational. The fact that she has done so much that is irrational already helps Anna Raverat to get away with it. If you like first person narratives with a strong psychological perspective and tortured love affairs, and can accept humans are often their own worst enemies, then I warmly recommend this to you.