Signs of Life is Anna Raverat’s debut novel.
It can be read on two levels: as a simple love triangle thriller, or as a meditation on truth. I think its success almost proves to be its downfall: this is a book bursting with inconsistencies and Raverat takes risks in straddling the line that she does. At times I lost patience with it, yet my final impression was favourable. Far from being amateurish, this is in fact a complex, intelligent and triumphant novel.
The subject excited me – the recounting of a love affair, but the blurb aroused suspicion – ‘This is not a confession…is she telling us the truth?’ This book was either going to be immensely gratifying or it was going to make me cringe. I wanted to love it, but worried I might hate it.
The ambivalence was thrilling.
The novel opens with a Plath quotation, and despite the narrator’s insistence that it is not a confession, the style is nevertheless confessional; the voice intimate and direct.
The unapologetically minimalist plot involves Rachel, the narrator, attempting to make sense, retrospectively, of a disastrous affair. A theme emerges – the nature of memory and recollection; how subjective these things are. It’s contemplative; meditative even. But the quality of the writing struck me as inconsistent.
Forced to examine what was grating on me, my issues turned out to be related to the notion of female vanity. A comment one of my university tutors once made kept coming to mind. I’d submitted something based on my own experience of being nineteen and admired by several men, and this tutor had warned me against the pitfalls of reader alienation. I remember the dismay I felt at agreeing with him, disliking my vain, self-indulgent writing as much as he did.
So the line ‘… I thought how if I lived there I would climb those stairs every day and what brilliantly toned legs and bottom I would have’, elicited a wince: you can’t say that in a serious novel. But the following paragraph recovered its eloquence, and I thought, well, maybe you can.
I began to admire Raverat for ploughing ahead with this honest portrayal of youthful vanity. Having spent two decades avoiding the issue, it felt liberating to see the flesh of something so intuitively familiar laid bare. Raverat seemed suddenly brave, and despite these embarrassing moments, I failed to dislike the book, finding my continuing ambivalence strangely exhilarating. Rachel contains echoes of Helen Dunmore’s narcissistic Nina from Talking to the Dead, and although she feels slightly immature, I forgave her. Who doesn’t sometimes feel immature, after all?
So, there’s some over-writing; details that appear to lack meaning; she employs a deliberately banal vernacular in places. But I realised that what Raverat does, by making Rachel’s voice the only one inhabiting the writing, is she forces us to permit her almost anything, which turns out to be a smart device.
Because if you look outside the deceptively clumsy writing, the structure of the novel is flawless. The various strands are skilfully woven together; it moves beautifully. The themes are clear and astutely observed. Raverat takes an image – the vertigo metaphor, for instance – and layers it carefully throughout the text, so at its best, the writing is very powerful and the punches, when she delivers them, feel vividly real.
About halfway through, I realised I trusted her; that she was constructing something quite advanced, but making it look simple. As the novel unfolds, Rachel acknowledges her excruciating vanity; she investigates and deconstructs the methods she has chosen to tell her story. We see her grappling with subjective and objective truths; the way the relationship with the self shifts over time. Raverat examines what it is to tell a story with or without prejudice. She illuminates the acute fragility and vulnerability of the first-person narrator.
Rachel is recounting a love affair, yet the meanness with which she imbues almost every recollection of her lover Carl is stifling. Whilst questioning Rachel’s integrity, we also recognise the tendency to tarnish events with hindsight. The subtle manipulations of the unconscious mind.
Perhaps Signs of Life is a novel about weaving one’s own myth. A story about someone telling a story, within which there are yet others. It’s about how we ascribe meaning to our actions; apply symbolism; borrow from stories we have learnt; play out fairytales. Raverat is playing with perception; tricks of light. The whole becomes an exercise in distortion. What defines reality from perceived reality. It’s both accessible and esoteric; a city girl trapped in an Angela Carter-esque nightmare.
It’s actually so clever it can be irritating. One is reminded of John Fowles and Ian McEwan: writerly writers employing smug technical devices. Raverat presses an exposé of her construction on us, practically inviting us to take part in the editing experience. This self-consciousness, when it works, is nimbly accomplished, but there’s a fine line between understated brilliance and boasting. Raverat makes herself untouchable; protected from objections by occupying the first-person narrative.
But why not, because all she is doing is following Doris Lessing’s Golden Notebooks outside the accepted boundaries of literature. Every time I baulked at her audacity, I held judgment and re-evaluated her as experimental. In chapter thirty-three, there is a list entitled Things there are not. It seemed a brazen liberty for her to place something like the bald beginnings of a poem or personal philosophical musing within a finished novel. And yet I was inspired by it.
Raverat has had the conviction to create a heroine of violent contradictions. Although it’s a novel about sex and desire, it’s not about love. It’s steeped in a hostility that keeps the reader from warming to the heroine. The book’s brutal examination of vanity is what makes it courageous. Her reflections are startlingly unendearing yet nevertheless extremely perceptive. Rachel is memorable because she is convincing: sensitive, self-centred; both shallow and deep.
The nearer I got to the end, the more I appreciated the novel’s Puckish wisdom. It’s a beautiful, poetic book that masquerades as something more gratuitous and accessible. The open-endedness of its conclusion is its strength. Like memory, the material slips through the fingers, elusive and intangible.
There’s darkness there if you want to focus on it, forming shapes out of the void. But there’s light too.
Throughout, Raverat refuses to commit to a commercial or a literary style – whatever that means – but once you’ve accepted it, it stops mattering. The real magic of Signs of Life is that she absolutely manages to pull it off.