Ten years ago, Rachel had an affair. It left her life in pieces. Now, writing at her window, she tries to put those pieces together again. She has her memories, recollections of dreams, and her old yellow notebook. More than anything, she wants to be honest. Rachel knows that her memory is patchy and her notebook incomplete. But there is something else. Something terrible happened to her lover. Her account is hypnotic, delicate, disquieting and bold. But is she telling us the truth?
Ten years ago Rachel had a disastrous love affair. She was in a relationship with Johnny, content and maybe a bit bored. Carl was new in Rachel’s company. She wasn’t really attracted, Johnny was far more handsome, but maybe she sensed Carl was a “bad boy”, maybe she wanted to escape routine. One evening they kiss and from there they slide into a passionate affair, even though Rachel doesn’t really want that.
We know from the beginning that things go horribly wrong in the end but we don’t know what happened. Even Rachel doesn’t know everything. At the end of the affair she has a breakdown. She is hospitalised; trauma, stress and medication blur everything. Now, ten years later, she decides to write down the whole story, tries to make sense.
The story Rachel tries to write down is fragmented because her memories of what happened ten years ago are fragmented. And that leads us straight to one of the major topics of this novel. How does memory work?
Perhaps it never did snow that August in Vermont; perhaps there never were flurries in the night wind, and maybe no-one else felt the ground hardening and summer already dead even as we pretended to bask in it, but that was how it felt to me, and it might as well have snowed, could have snowed, did snow. Joan Didion
Might as well have; could have; did. The movement from possibility to certainty in the sentence is exactly how it works in the head; this is how imagination merges with memory, how dreams get confused with facts; why reality sometimes feels so unreal. The extract is from Joan Didion’s On Keeping a Notebook. It unlocked my own imagination; something in me resonated strongly and I wanted to use that, the feeling of recognition, almost of ownership, when you read something and think, that’s exactly the way I feel! And a feeling of entitlement slips in. I started with her line, took some words of, pegged others on – I wanted to absorb the sentence fully, make my own version.
The narration jumps back and forth in time, and precisely this fragmentation is what I liked so much. We don’t only discover a story, we discover how memory works. How things are altered, embellished, imagined.
The result is authentic. We take part in discovering the truth. Rachel took notes during the affair but she left out a lot. Reading was and is important to her. The books and stories she reads influence the way she perceives what happens. The final tale she tells is a patchwork made of different material.
Signs of Life is fascinating and gripping at the same time. The end was to some extent what I had expected but still surprising enough to be memorable. And we wonder whether Rachel is not after all a very unreliable narrator.
I’m often annoyed by book covers so it’s worth mentioning what a great exception this cover is. It’s rare that a cover fits a book so well. How to better represent a fragmented story than by using a collage of photos that illustrate various moments in the book. The only pictures missing here are that of a cat and of a woman writing.
Apart from depicting how memory works, Signs of Life is an excellent psychological study. It shows how some choices may alter our lives forever and that we are not always fully in charge. Intense emotions may push us to do things we don’t want to do and we may find that our life has fallen apart, is shattered and broken.