‘Signs of Life’ by Anna Raverat


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.

11 thoughts on “‘Signs of Life’ by Anna Raverat

  1. I’d considered this a couple of times but had been put off by its apparent similarity to the ghastly “Before I Go To Sleep”….maybe I’ll reconsider!


  2. I quite liked ‘Signs of Life’, Kim – I loved the fragmented structure of it, and the way it played not only with memory, but with truth and whether it can be objective or not. I’m not a poetry fan so some of the quoted poems themselves didn’t work for me, but the idea of the quotes and the way they captured a memory or a feeling for Rachel better than her own words could I thought worked very well. I also liked the parallels with the story of the builders renovating the flat opposite as Rachel also underwent a kind of renovation – it was nicely done without seeming too neat. But… Rachel and Carl are both such unsympathetic characters and I found it very hard to care about either of them and their rather dreary affair. I also had a problem with the ending (the big dramatic scene) which seemed slightly farcical and for me didn’t sit comfortably with the fairly dark tone of the rest of the book. I could sort of imagine it as one of those two-part “psychological thrillers” on ITV where you’d get to that scene at the end of the second episode and want to scream at the telly for the sheer ridiculousness of it.
    Still, this is one of the best novels I’ve read about memory lately (and there have been a LOT this year!), and the writing is particularly good.


  3. Well, I’ve not read “Before I Go To Sleep” — perhaps the only person in the world yet to do so — so I can’t compare them. But this book is a quick, yet intelligent, read.


  4. Nooo, you’re not the only person in the Known World! The more they hype ’em, the less likely I am to let ’em in the house!
    But this one sounds good.


  5. This seems like an interesting read. I also haven’t read Before I go to sleep, although it is on my wishlist. I will have to add this one too.
    Thanks for your review


  6. Thank you Kim as I had read a few reviews of this book and they had really put me off, they basically said the narrator was incredibly off putting (I won’t say why but I think they insinuated something which also meant they disliked the plot because of her actions, I don’t know I havent read it) and that they didn’t really like it. So you have saved it from a cull as I wasn’t sure I was bothered and poetry in books puts me off… it messes up my reading pattern, I start reading everything as a poem and get frustrated.
    All that waffle said, basically I want to read it after your thoughts.


  7. Ooooh, I have read a few great reviews of this over the past week or so and yours has only added to my wish to read it soon! From someone else who is yet to pick up Before I Go To Sleep!


  8. I failed to mention the story of the builders opposite Rachel’s flat, so glad you mentioned it here. I like your idea that Rachel, too, was undergoing a transformation.
    And while I agree the ending is a bit OTT, there is part of me that wonders about the truth of it, after all, we’re only hearing Rachel’s version of events. I thought it kind of odd that the police just put it down as an accident…


  9. Ah, nice to know that there are others out there that haven’t read Before I Go To Sleep. (Have you seen the number of reviews that book has garnered on Amazon???)


  10. I haven’t seen any other review of this, so interesting that others have claimed the narrator was off putting. I quite liked her. But that said, she is self-absorbed and scatty, but perhaps because I’m used to this kind of voice (it reminded me so much of Nicci French) that I forgave any shortcomings?
    Also, I wouldn’t let the poetry etc put you off. They are just small snippets scattered throughout, more to capture Rachel’s mood than anything else, and if they really bother you you could completely skip them and not miss anything.


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