Confessions on an affair gone wrong

The jacket notes of Anna Raverat's novel "Signs of Life" declares that "this is not a confession", but it certainly reads like one.

Signs of Life by Anna Raverat (Picador)

The novel charts protagonist Rachel’s recollections of an affair she had 10 years previously that left her life and those of others in ruins.

In an attempt to expunge that dark and sometimes sordid time of her life, Rachel tries to piece together the fragments of memories by “telling even the most difficult parts that I have never told before … hoping to be released from the pressure of this story, hoping to shake it off or out of me …”

There is nothing remarkable about the particulars of the affair. Rather, incidents and warning signs gradually accumulated and led to an almost inevitable end.

Rachel’s constant pondering on these mostly unexceptional events, what actually happened, and what was more likely to have been a dream or fantasy, irritated me rather than inspiring my own introspection, which I assume is one of the goals of the novel.

“What am I supposed to save? What am I supposed to remember? What am I supposed to tell? Am I supposed to hold anything back?”

I found Rachel self-indulgent and spineless.

“I needed to decide whether or not to tell Johnny, and if I did tell him whether I was going to try and stay with him, if he still wanted me, or whether by telling him I would also be breaking up with him.”

But the unremarkableness of the story can perhaps also be its saving grace.

In seeing Rachel’s very “normal” errors and contemplations we are reminded of her humanity and of our own flaws, failures and weaknesses. This novel does not deliver the escapism and inspiration many of us look for in books but I don’t think this is what Raverat was trying to serve up either.

The book is interspersed with extracts from novels and poems that stand out for Rachel and further show her reliance on writing as a cathartic activity.

One extract stood out for me for its sincerity:

“How in time you do not move on:
How there is no “other” side:
How the instant is very wide and bright and we cannot
Ever get away with it”
(Jorie Graham)

The extract “broke the surface” for me, as it did for Rachel, igniting sudden recognition.

We’ve all had that feeling.

“When I read these lines I let out an involuntary, uh, the sound of air being expelled by a low stab of recognition, a physical feeling in the belly, and I thought, I am trying to get away with something …”

I was brought down to earth by Rachel’s humanity, remembering again that I am not a unique snowflake of a person and I can just as easily make the same mistakes as she did. In a way I took her story as a warning: affairs happen to and are conducted by very “normal” people too. Don’t have one. And if you’re going to, don’t do it like this.

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