Signs of Life, by Anna Raverat
It is difficult to find much information about Anna Raverat on the internet and so from this I assume she must be quite a private author. She is descended from Gwendolen Raverat nee Darwin, granddaughter of Charles Darwin. Gwendolen was an artist and writer and married Jacques Raverat, a French painter. The couple settled in England and became members of the Bloomsbury Group, striking up a particular friendship with Virginia Woolf. This pattern seems to have followed down the family lines; Anna Raverat’s mother was a painter and her father a writer.
This literary lineage is evident in her first book, Signs of Life. This is written as a first book, the narrator is the writer, sitting down to write out her story. In fact, you may well spend a good deal of the book wondering how much of this is fiction and how close it may be to the author’s own story. She has included many examples of other authors’ work to show where she has drawn influences from in her writing, such as Joan Dideon and Stevie Smith. This is actually very cleverly woven in to the narration as it comes across as an absolute love of the written word and immediately conveys the impression that the author just has to write, and she does it very beautifully.
Of the actual story, it is not conventional and it took me a few chapters to work out what was actually going on here. This approach I came to love as the book moved on. The narrator is attempting to let go of an affair that she had ten years earlier, an affair that ended badly and has obviously stayed with her and is preventing her from moving forward with her life. It is said that in order to let go of a piece of your history once and for all, one must re-live it in its entirety and then its lessons may be understood and let go. As the narrator, Rachel, sits in her flat watching builders work on the block of flats opposite, she explores this story of hers and considers each angle of it. As she does this the line of the tale unfolds but it would be more explanatory to say we re-live it with her and look at it from inside her head.
Many reviews of this book have described the protagonist, Rachel as an unlikeable character but I disagree. Rachel’s voice is like a heavy sigh, deep and full of watery emotion. This is something that could happen to anyone and as it is written the narrator’s voice is very close to the reader, she opens up to us and confides in us on a level beyond the attempts of most writers. She is not telling us a story, she is bringing us into her unburdening and makes us a part of the book.
As Rachel is writing about her own life, she also comments on many interesting points of life writing. How do you write a true story from a one-sided memory? How do you not paint yourself in the most positive light? How do you get past what the reader will think of you to give an honest account of how you behaved? This is another reason that I disagree with the idea that Rachel is unlikeable because she is trying her hardest to be honest. If everyone was honest about themselves, how many people would really be so likeable? Most of us have darkness inside of us and sometimes other people bring it out and make us see how much we really have.
This book is beautiful and an amazingly heartfelt first work. Anna Raverat has an original approach to writing and is obviously in love with words and phrases. I eagerly await further work from her, I will be very interested to see which direction she might take next as I suspect she is an unpredictable writer.