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Sunday, 24 February 2013

Signs Of Life by Anna Raverat

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!


Signs Of Life Anna Raverat

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...

6 comments:

  1. I had to comment on your question: "Do you ever feel like sometimes the anticipation of reading a new book can eventually ruin the actual experience?" Yes, that has happened to me. It happens more with vintage mysteries that I am reading based on a lot of good reviews and the author's reputation. I also feel that I don't enjoy some mysteries because they follow predictable plot lines or the author repeats a formula (that I loved in the past). Whereas if I was coming to them with less background, the book would be more enjoyable. Interesting ideas to think about.

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    1. I definitely think that's true with 'vintage' books/classics. It's impossible to approach these books with a clear mind as you've always heard so much about them beforehand. And talking of predictable plot lines, I have sometimes found vintage mysteries to feel a little flat and formulaic because I've read similar, more modern novels. In those cases it's difficult to appreciate that the vintage book actually paved the way for its successors.

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  2. I frequently feel that book buzz can and does set my expectations so high for a book that there is no way it will ever live up to them. I have frequently found that a book which everyone loves is one that left me feeling rather meh about it - this happened to me way too often last year and with some of the year's most popular books. I have found that unless I read a book before it starts generating buzz, I need to wait until the buzz dies down - sometimes years later - for me to be able to judge it fairly.

    I do love unreliable narrators, and this does sound intriguing. I might have to check it out some day.

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    1. I find blogging makes me far more susceptible to the book buzz, too. There's always the worry that if I wait until after the hype has died down to read something then nobody would be interested in reading my review - even if my review is fairer and more reflective as a result of that waiting!

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  3. Great post Marie, and yes, I agree, sometimes the anticipation and the build-up can ruin the reading experience, it's happened many times for me. Regarding Signs of Life though - I read it before I'd heard anything about it. It dropped through the letterbox unexpectedly and I really really enjoyed it. I do think that was because I had no preconceptions of it at all. Hope it wasn't my review that raised your expectations too high?

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    1. Not at all, Anne! With this one I think it was my own preconceptions that were problematic. I hadn't even read that many glowing reviews of the book that I can recall but based on the premise I was convinced quite quickly that it'd be 'my kind of book'.

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