Signs of Life was a completely random pick from Sheffield Library’s shelves last week. I have absolutely no idea what prompted me to pick it up other than a desperate need to avoid going home empty handed, but it wouldn’t be a usual choice for me.
This is Natalie Taylor’s story. It starts the day her husband dies and ends sixteen months later on their son’s first birthday.
Natalie’s journey from wife to widow to mother is heartbreaking, blackly funny and will move you to laughter and tears as she makes it across that finish line. And you have no doubt she will make it because Natalie is a warrior and a woman to cheer for.
I can’t help but cringe as I type out that summary. It’s just awful. Although it’s fairly accurate about the plot, the tone of the book is absolutely nothing like that. To start, it’s not funny. It’s just not, in any way, shape or form. Secondly, the last sentence makes Signs of Life seem like some empowering, feminist self-help novel about coping with grief, and it’s not that either. It’s just a perfectly average woman writing about the sixteen months after her husband, Josh, dies. I wouldn’t describe her as a warrior and yes, she is a woman to cheer for – but so is every widowed, pregnant newly-wed.
The theory goes that every word of this book (minus a few name changes) is completely identical to her diary entries of the time, but obviously I’m not sure how true that is. On one hand, some parts (particularly the ending) seem so unrealistically twee that I can’t help but think they’re completely fictional. They just tie in too neatly with the whole ‘woman finding herself after tragedy’ shtick, if you know what I mean.
On the other hand, there are parts that I most certainly would have edited out if I were Natalie Taylor and not dedicated to preserving the truth. I understand that her husband and father of her unborn child had just been killed, but the abuse she subjects her in-laws to in this book is horrendous. She just can’t seem to understand that Josh’s other family members are suffering too – she doesn’t appreciate anything they do for her and constantly insults their very personalities. She’s just so ungrateful and whiny. I’m not criticising her attitude per se – obviously I’ve never been widowed at 24 and so can’t judge the feelings of those who have. I just wonder at her judgement in choosing to publish something that can only serve to alienate those trying to help her.
Why are these people more popular than Marianne Pearl? Why don’t we interview Marianne Pearl? (I know, I know, Oprah did interview Marianne Pearl, which is why we never judge Oprah). Still, so sickening. So frustrating. I just feel like I am the one who should be rich and famous, not them. I am going through this horrible fucking situation; doesn’t the universe owe me something? Don’t I get to be on Oprah?
Anyway. It’s a very accessible read and I did get In The Book Zone while reading it. It uses a very chatty tone and it’s easy to get sucked in. The English teacher aspects of the book are interesting, if not always relevant, as she talks a lot about the books they’re studying in class, like The Great Gatsby and The Scarlet Letter. Thing is, unlike most books about books, she actually explains what they’re actually about instead of assuming you already know. Must be the English teacher in her coming out. Her opinions of her students are also interesting, but it says a lot that the thing I liked most about Signs of Life are the parts unrelated to the actual topic.
This is my superhero alter ego. I go around the world finding people who commit social injustices and I attack them with copies of literary classics to teach them a lesson. The kid who is suspended for racial slurs? I break into his bedroom in the middle of the night, knock out a few of his teeth, and leave him with a copy of To Kill A Mockingbird. The parents who get arrested because they let their twelve-year-old throw a party without their supervision and the kids break into the liquor cabinet? I visit the parents in their holding cell to drop off two copies of Lord of the Flies.
The best way I can explain it is that I liked Signs of Life, but not Natalie Taylor. I finished it in a day and a half, but it’s not something I’d ever want to read again.