Picador’s tagline writers are certainly earning their money this month. ‘Signs of Life’ is, according to the top of my review copy, ‘One of 2012’s most hotly anticipated debut novels.’ Who is doing this anticipating, I’m not sure; until ‘Signs of Life’ appeared on my Amazon Vine selection for this month, I’d never heard of it. I’ve since realised it’s on the Waterstones 11 pick for 2012, so this is clearly a book that the industry believes in. And with good reason. For much like Picador’s ‘most controversial novel I’ll read this year’ – ‘Hope: A tragedy’, ‘Signs of Life’ is a very fine piece of fiction.
At its centre is a most unreliable narrator, who is writing ten years after the end of a catastrophic affair. The novel opens with the bald statement that ‘this is not a confession’. Instead it’s a history; a history with holes. A history that has been rewritten and reorganised to make the tale more palatable. Not to the reader, but to its narrator. We all self-edit. Special events in our lives probably did not glow in the way that we remember. The mistakes we made had mitigating circumstances. The mistakes of others were not our fault. This fragmented narrative shows remarkable perception about how the human mind can polish its memories.
Having experienced some of what Anna Raverat is writing about (i.e. there was a period of time when I was a Grade-A bastard), I found Rachel’s story particularly poignant. Her selfishness, denial and naive self-justification, are all magnificently captured. But if this novel was just Rachel carping on about her tempestuous affair, and whining about how she couldn’t help it, this would not be a good book. Holding up the body of this novel is a backbone of steel. Hints of dark events creep into Rachel’s story, and through them the reader gains some idea what might have happened, but until the final pages the truth remains tantalising and elusive. When it arrives, it’s like an adrenalin shot to the heart. The final pages are grimly fascinating, and unputdownable.
‘Signs of Life’ is a triumph. Despite it’s fragmented structure and haphazard sequencing (the story’s timeline meanders all over the place), Raverat squeezes out an amazing amount of tension into the last few pages. A meditation on the darker side of love, that packs a punch, this is a fine novel. If I wasn’t hotly anticipating this debut, I shall be certainly be very interested to see how Raverat follows it up. An author to watch.