Ten years ago, in her twenties, Rachel was in a long-term relationship: “no ruptures, no wrinkles, we were happy.” Then she had an affair with a man at work, someone rougher and more dangerous than her boyfriend Johnny, and it ended badly, with violence and a breakdown. Now, all these years later, in Anna Raverat’s Signs of Life, she is trying to work through it, to understand it, so she can find the limits of her own responsibility and finally stop swimming upstream against it. This book is a careful unraveling of all the twists and threads of that sort of affair — the lies, the deceptions, the self-deceptions, the forgetting, especially after time and trauma and alcohol and drugs — with an attempt at perfect honesty. It’s also an examination of the process of writing: going back and forth over something, trying to get it right, trying to drag the right words into the light so that the feelings lie sheer and clear. It makes for a fragmentary narrative in some ways, skipping backwards and forwards in time, and gradually building up to a horrifying climax.
Rachel thought she was happy in her relationship with Johnny, which was full of what was becoming a rather tiresome goodness. But when she meets Carl at work she knows he is trouble, a damaged, intense man, and despite this – or maybe because of it – she becomes involved with him. From the start it is a bad relationship, on again, off again, fraught with conflict, but she is painfully aware that there is something dark, possibly uncomfortably wrong and narcissistic at its center which she is partly responsible for creating. I was surprised at myself: I have a heightened awareness of the red flags of relationship abuse, but I was so caught up in the narrative that I didn’t become uncomfortable with it until Rachel did. This has to do with the seeking, questing nature of the narrative, the way she moves backward and forward, looking for what really happened, with no window-dressing. Rachel wants the truth; the question is whether the truth is something she can ever find, or even begin to articulate.
This is a beautifully written book. The prose is very simple, not in the least flowery or descriptive, as if Rachel is setting things on paper in as raw and plain a way as she can manage, as if she knows that any frippery at all will obscure the truth. I kept pausing over her observations, to let them strike home. Here’s one:
It doesn’t happen from the head down. That’s not how it is. You don’t always decide to do something and then do it, or decide not to do something and then not do it. And this doesn’t mean you are not responsible, it means responsibility is wider than you thought, and includes all the choices you made even if they were made by your hands or your feet or your lips before they registered in your head.
As this quotation suggests, one big thing this book thinks about is the way that big events — and sexuality in particular — can turn us into people we don’t recognize. Rachel does things she doesn’t like or respect, she treats Johnny horribly even though she loves him, but she mostly doesn’t remember choosing this. She experiences it as a kind of sleepwalking, stumbling along much farther and faster than she thought she was going. Her narrative also shows the way the biggest and most intense events of our lives can also be the hardest to explain. Did we make a choice? If so, when? What did we even want?
I was riveted by this book — by its psychological perspective, by the inherent unreliability of memory, by the slow, relentless approach of the consequences of bad behavior. I believe people are often their own worst enemies, and as I read about this woman wrestling with her own example of that, I barely wanted to put it down.