“The really frightening thing about the abyss is not that it exists, but that there is always a road in, and we take it” – Signs of Life by Anna Raverat

Ten years ago Rachel’s life fell apart following a damaging affair with the obsessive Carl.  Now Rachel is trying to piece her life back together by writing down what happened using her fragmented and unreliable memories and an old yellow notebook. At the heart of the affair is something dark and troubling, but can we rely on Rachel to tell us the truth?

Signs of Life is the story of a girl who makes a conscious choice; one that she has to learn to live with: 

“The really frightening thing about the abyss is not that it exists, but that there is always a road in, and we take it.”

This is the chilling truth at the heart of the story.  We make choices in our life, consciously or not and we have to live with the decisions we make.  It’s how we learn to do so, either by concealing the truth or expressing it clearly, that tells us who we are.  This is a story that could happen to anyone at anytime and illustrates what humans will do to survive.

We know from the start that this is only one version of the truth and that our narrator is as unreliable as they come.  For your reviewer this is the strength of the book, although the ambiguity this generates may not appeal to all readers.  Raverat leaves gaping holes in the narrative for the reader to insert themselves and work out their own version of the truth. 

Raverat has interspersed her narrative with quotes from other writers, one being taken from Joan Didion’s On Keeping a Notebook.  Rachel summarises this as: 

“Might as well have; could have; did. The movement from possibility to certainty… is exactly how it works in the head; this is how imagination merges with memory, how dreams get confused with facts; why reality sometimes feels so unreal.” 

For your reviewer, this encapsulates the process of reading (and probably writing) this book.

I must admit that as I started the story, which is written in short snippets that dart around in both time and place, I did wonder whether the book would be ever so slightly pretentious.  It isn’t.  The haphazard nature of the telling perfectly mirrors the way our memories work giving the book its authenticity.  Underlying the apparent chaos, however, is a fairly strict structure anchoring the story firmly in place.  There is some excellent use of foreshadowing helping to pull the reader gracefully through the novel.  Raverat excels at casually dropping single sentences into the narrative that you could almost miss, but that completely reverse your understanding of the situation and send it off in another direction.

Raverat has a lovely prose style and there are some wonderful sections.  Her particular strength lies in the noticing of small details and use of imagery: 

“It was as though we’d gone for dinner at our favourite restaurant and found the white tablecloth spread over the candlestick and glasses, wine bottle and water jug, transforming the familiar into a miniature mountain range, and we were sitting at this table, refusing to acknowledge the strange landscape between us.”

Sitting at her desk writing, Rachel watches the renovation of the opposite building.  It is from this that the title of the book comes:  “I don’t mind all the noise and activity because they are signs of life.”  As the renovation picks up pace so too does Rachel’s healing process.  It’s a rather charming metaphor that could easily have been an obvious cliché, but it isn’t. 

Any Cop?: This is a chilling story told in spare, precise prose that hooks you in, then sucks you under.  Wonderful.  Raverat is one to watch.

 

Julie Fisher

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