Fiction – hardcover; Picador; 320 pages; 2012. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.
The unreliability of memory is a common theme in many novels, and never more so than in Anna Raverat’s chilling debut Signs of Life.
From the opening sentences — “Beginning this book, there is something you should know. This is not a confession” — we are taken on a haunting journey through one woman’s difficult past. Ten years ago Rachel had an affair with Carl, a colleague at work. When it was over she had a breakdown and suffered a “year or so of feeling numb”. It clearly left her traumatised, but now with a new job, life and relationship, Rachel wants to figure out why the affair and the aftermath devastated her so much.
The narrative structure, which flips backwards and forwards in time, reflects Rachel’s struggle to piece together her past. There’s a kind of scrapbook feel to it, with lines of poetry, verses from songs and quotes from novels littered throughout. “Memory is not a pocket,” she writes. “It’s like this. Here’s the story: there are holes in it.”
A strong narrator
Rachel’s voice, close and confiding, is the strongest aspect of the novel. There’s something about her increasing paranoia and distress that is reminiscent of the female protagonists in most of Nicci French’s work. The rising tension gives the book a page-turning quality: what is it that makes Rachel so frightened? Can we trust her recollection of events? What is she forgetting to tell us?
I’m conscious of not wanting to give anything away, so if this review feels a bit vague it’s deliberate. All you really need to know is that it is a very dark story — about love and lust, passion and obsession — but there are fascinating snippets about writing and storytelling in it, too.
I have decided that I should include my own base actions and low words, those that are relevant. […] The material is already so compromised. It has been edited once, by memory, then again by substances — both processes I recognize but can’t know the extent of — and now I am editing again, to shape events into a story. I want the story to be true, and I see that if I leave out certain things I said and did, I am taking away from that.
Signs of Life was named on this year’s Waterstones 11, a list of books by debut authors that are billed as “great reads”. It’s a worthy inclusion.