Signs of Life

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.

signs of lifeRachel 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.

25 thoughts on “Signs of Life

  1. Sigh. Some people just don’t understand that morality has nothing to do with literature. I don’t think the woman who condemned Signs of Life likes many of the great classics… Her loss, I suppose, but like you, I tend to get very irritated by such assessments. They always make me feel like quoting Wilde: “There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.”

    • That’s true! The great classics rarely present untarnished heroes (I’m thinking of Le rouge et le noir in particular for some reason). That’s a wonderful quote from Wilde – he really did have something clever to say for every situation, didn’t he? Thank you for sharing it!

  2. I just finished watching the new Anna Karenina movie and it sounds like there are some parallels between this book and Anna Karenina (which I loved, book and movie), so I may have to look into it!

    • And I’ve heard good things about the movie – people surprised by how much they like it, which has to be a good endorsement. This is definitely a VERY contemporary rewrite of the Karenina story, but I can see where you’re coming from and it would be a fascinating comparison.

  3. I have this same problem when reading people assessments of on-line courses of one sort or another. Inevitably the really extreme ones say far more about the prejudices of the person who has taken the course (or more likely given up half way) than they do about the course itself. Wherever possible I try to identify reviewers who have a track record of thoughtful and balanced comment and ignore the rest. (Or is that my prejudice showing through?)

    • I think it’s so sensible to identify sensible reviewers (or maybe reviewers of good sensibility!) as I feel there are plenty of fine reviews on Goodreads and I keep letting myself get sidetracked by the infuriating ones. You are perfectly correct to say that such reviews say a great deal more about the person than the book.

  4. You’ve made me want to read this (which means a lot – in one of those periods when I’m looking aroundhelplessly, not knowing what I want to read).

    As for the moralistic review you mention, I suppose part of the new culture where ‘anyone’ can review books online is that, while some of those reviews will expand what a review can be iin an entirely creative and lively way, others will point us to the more positive aspects of ‘professional’ reviewing and its sometimes restrictive, boring or elitist parameters.

    • Jean, I so empathise with where you are reading-wise. I sometimes find non-fiction can help me there and I’m reading a brilliant book at the moment ‘The Examined Life’ by Stephen Grosz,, a collection of short pieces condensing 30 years of psychotherapeutic experience. He makes each mini-essay into a brief epiphany about living so they are very light yet very profound. I’m finding them very life enhancing. And you are quite right – the ability to be creative with reviewing has produced some excellent reviews and new directions for talking about books.

  5. It’s just as you say–isn’t this why we read good literature? What would that reviewer have made of Hester Prynne in the Scarlet Letter? It’s so easy to look in on a relationship and say you would never do something so silly or would be stronger than this woman, but life is rarely so black and white I have discovered. And as much as I think I am so strong and would make the “right” choices in relationships–well, looking back at my own history I see plenty of times I let things go on that I hope I wouldn’t let go on now, if you know what I mean! I, too, have wondered about reviews by readers in places like Amazon or GR–people tend to not be very sympathetic so often and the things they say really surprise me. Are we reading the same book? This one sounds good and I think it’s going to have to go into my next order!

    • Well this is what gets me: it’s that old proverb about people who live in glasshouses not throwing stones. Which of us has NEVER done something foolish in a relationship? I don’t think it’s humanly possible NOT to make mistakes and have disasters! I do just wish people would have a bit more compassion, and would look at themselves not at paragons of virtue but as ordinary flawed mortals. Good call on The Scarlet Letter – absolutely!!

  6. Maybe the fact the novel is about something as uncomfortable as an affair where a person acts unlike themselves, and the reviewer has such a bad reaction to it, says more about the reviewer, than the book itself. It also points out that the book shows the darker side of love or sex (unclear if the character loves the bad man she goes with, or if it’s just about sex), in such a way that it does bring up things in the reader – usually a good sign that the idea is portrayed accurately, and truthfully. or at least as much as the character and author can know about something that isn’t reasonable or logical. Hmm, I might have to go find this book to read now!

    Excellent review and thoughtful post about what literature and reading is for, Litlove. I’m of the view that literature is for exploring the human condition, in all its possibilities, wonders, and powerful emotions that we all have, to illuminate and communicate and share the experience of being alive.

    • Susan, what a perceptive comment and you are so right. There is a real darkness in this book which made it fascinating to me but which could definitely bring up uncomfortable feelings in a reader, which might well have to be swept under the carpet of a review. Incidentally, the main character is uncertain herself what she feels about the man she is having an affair with and it adds to her disquiet and the difficulty of recounting honestly what was happening. I’d love to know what you think of this if you read it! I must also add that I have been a bad blogger these past couple of months and not been swift to reply to comments, but I wanted to thank you so much for the amazingly kind and understanding comment you left on my post ‘Recovering’ (I think it was, it was one of the anxiety ones). It’s stayed with me, even if I have yet to say so properly.

  7. All I could think was, wow, I wouldn’t want to be that reviewer’s friend telling her my troubles and looking for compassion and understanding and then getting a slap in the face instead. I generally only read the GR reviews of friends for this very reason. It is too disheartening otherwise. The book sounds most excellent, intense and thoughtful and well written. To judge the morals of the main character seems so far beyond the whole point of it all you have to wonder why the person even bothered finishing the book.

    • Ha, EXACTLY! You are so right to pick and choose between goodreads reviews. I’m annoying myself by getting fixated on the few bad ones when there are plenty which are sensitive and thoughtful. It is so easy to be sidetracked by outrage!🙂

  8. It sounds like a fine book. The reader’s reaction reminds me of a (male) editor’s reaction to a short story I’d submitted. The story got published, though he had no idea what it was about. He shook his head sadly over the extremes pms can take when it wasn’t about pms anymore than the story of Adam and Eve is about gardening. But it’s much easier to take that when it comes in the form of praise (albeit misguided) and publication.

  9. Sometimes I have a feeling that certain people want to re-read the same book over and over agian, preferably one that mirrors 100% what they believe is right. Yeah well.
    This sounds like another interesting find.

    • Yes, you speak the truth there. I can’t imagine wanting to see the inside of my own head reproduced over and over in narrative – how claustrophobic would that be? I think you might enjoy this novel – the psychological perspective works very well, I think.

  10. Well, you know, I’ve got to jump over to Goodreads right now and see if I can pick out the review. I have very often told myself not to look at the reviews since, with the limited time I seem to find for reading, one bad review can keep me from reading a book. I recently read a review of The Book Thief – a book I loved – and was grateful I hadn’t seen the nonsensical review beforehand. Nevertheless, some reviews remind me of my favorite advice from my Mom, “Don’t believe anything you hear and only half of what you see.” It helped me decide for myself on so many occasions.

    • Ha, I’ll bet you can find it. I love your Mom’s advice and can see I must take it on board. I know just what you mean about being derailed by bad reviews, and really the only way to know how you feel about a book is to read it. The experience is so unpredictable every time!

  11. I avoid GoodReads entirely, but I haven’t been too disappointed by a reader’s obtuseness about a book since first teaching the play A Streetcar Named Desire to 18-year-olds who said “why doesn’t she just tell the Truth?” My mission in life ever since could be described as Defending Blanche.

  12. Litlove,

    You’ve just brought up the dilemma of the democratizing of criticism. And Goodreads is the best example. Everybody can speak her mind regardless of qualifications and credentials. It’s a users’ forum. I know, the book critics are up in arms about this… letting the ordinary reader have their say in their ‘reviews’. I’m not surprised with Goodreads, I’ve come upon some really nasty sentiments. This issue is just going to be more acute since cyberspace is for everyone. In a way it’s good that the ivory tower of elitism has been knocked down, its negative effect is letting some think their rants are intelligent critiques.

  13. Pingback: Anna Raverat: Signs of Life (2012) | Beauty is a Sleeping Cat

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