Do you ever feel like sometimes the anticipation of reading a new book can eventually ruin the actual experience? I can think of a number of cases when I've stumbled across a press release or blog review of a book that's really excited me, that has gone straight to the top of my wishlist, that I have to read right away. And then after I've turned over the last page I'm left shrugging and wondering what I'd made all the fuss about. Here's an example of one such title that I found really appealing and was sure would be counted among my top reads of the year. And because I was not quite as wowed as I had expected to be, I felt quite disappointed immediately after reading it. Having had a few days to reflect, though, it is a really good book and I think my initial reaction was unfair. It's novels like these that are the reason why I don't give star ratings on this blog. I'd be forever changing my mind!
Ten years ago, Rachel had an intense love affair with a work colleague and it did not end well. Ever since then she has been trying various ways to help her move on with her life - alcohol, medication, distancing herself from friends and situations that might bring the memories flooding back to her. When she finally feels ready to face up to what happened back then it proves difficult because the passing of a decade and the consumption of various mind-altering substances have blurred her memories. Fortunately she has her notebooks to help her piece together a mental jigsaw, hastily scribbled diary entries and song lyrics that capture brief snapshots of her thoughts back then. But can we rely on Rachel to fill in the blanks accurately? As the blurb asks: "is she telling us the truth?".
And I guess this question is key to your enjoyment of the novel - for this story to have maximum impact you need to see the protagonist as a liar or at the very least an intentionally unreliable narrator. I just didn't get that impression of her. Sure, there are blanks in her narrative and details that are mentioned early on and then described in a different light later in the book. But Rachel herself admits that she doesn't remember things clearly and can't be sure that events had transpired exactly as she recalls. In that sense I found her quite honest and actually felt sympathetic towards her. Embarking on the affair in the first place - particularly with an unhinged brute like Carl - was clearly a very foolish and selfish decision, but it's a human mistake that lots of people make. And after the affair was established, I didn't think it was overwhelmingly Rachel's actions that led to a bad outcome. It's interesting, from other reviews I've read of Signs Of Life it seems a lot of readers dislike Rachel very strongly and think she's a self-centred and manipulative person. I guess if you share this viewpoint then you would probably find the eventual conclusion much more powerful.
My impression of the protagonist aside, I thought this was a well-written novel that was constructed very cleverly. The non-linear narrative was disorientating at first and almost feels like a stream of consciousness as thoughts and memories occur to Rachel at random. Nevertheless, it really works well as a way to build suspense throughout and shrouds events in a hazy fog of confusion. I liked how it allowed Raverat to clearly illustrate the contrast between the rosy early days of the relationship with the situation later on when things had turned sour, and similarly the contrast between the characters of the two men in Rachel's life.
One thing I love about books is the scope they offer for individual interpretation and how all readers see things slightly differently. I enjoyed this book but found it didn't have as much impact on me as others have experienced. I'll definitely be looking out for more by Anna Raverat, though.
It has struck me that in recent months I've maybe read too many books involving a reclusive and/or melancholy female protagonist with skeletons in her closet. They always sound so tempting but it's possible that I have become a bit jaded with this particular theme - maybe that's got something to do with my recent reading slump? I feel the need to step right out of my comfort zone and shake things up a bit...