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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Signs of Life

M.John Harrison

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To purchase Signs of Life

Title: Signs of Life
Author: M.John Harrison
Genre: Novel
Written: 1997
Length: 253 pages
Availability: Signs of Life - US
Signs of Life - UK
Signs of Life - canada

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Our Assessment:

B+ : good writing, strange twist

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Fantasy & Sci. Fiction . 1/1998 Douglas E. Winter
New Scientist . 19/7/1997 David Barrett
The NY Times Book Rev. . 2/11/1997 Gerald Jonas
TLS . 30/5/1997 Liam McIlvanney

  From the Reviews:
  • "His prose has impeccable rhythm and poise. The novel has all this, but what it lacks is a purposive structure. As a sustained piece of narrative fiction, Signs of Life is uncoordinated. (...) The final chapter, in which all this comes to light in a frantic sequence of revelations, seems to belong in another book altogether." - Liam McIlvanney, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Signs of Life is narrated by Mick Rose, who usually goes by his nickname, China. Together with a friend, Choe, he gets involved in running a remunerative but somewhat questionable courier service. They form Rose Medical Plc. and, at high speeds, transport a variety of goods that generally really has to get there on time -- from transplant organs to computer parts to recombinant DNA.
       It's a real business, but from the beginning there are details that China realises he is better off not knowing. Clouds appear -- China realising he is involved in some pretty dubious doings -- but things run fairly smoothly for the most part.

What the stuff was used for we had no idea. I didn't want an idea until later; and that turned out to be much too late.
       They make a lot of money, but it hardly really matters. For the most part it is almost just a thing to do. Neither is interested in making sure of continued, or greater success. Choe remains a wild, often unreliable risk-taker, pushing himself (and the machines he drives) to and beyond all limits. But things change for China when he meets young Isobel: she is able to return to him "the optimism eroded by what seemed a long and ordinary life", and he finds a great deal of satisfaction and pleasure in this relationship.
       Signs of Life is a love story. For much of the novel the everyday dominates: small scenes, with little sense of action progressing to any end. Choe's insane lifestyle would, in any other novel, progress to it's inevitable culminating crashing end, but Harrison presents him at the very edge from the beginning: there's nowhere left for him to go, and so the character-arc is simply a straight line. The business, too, often crops up, but it isn't central, and China doesn't care all that much how things go.
       Isobel is an unusual creature, and China can't always help her. In particular, she has an unusual obsession or dream -- unusual because of the true desperation she feels and the lengths to which she is willing to go to achieve it. Isobel and China's relationship falls apart, and China muddles along, largely indifferent again. Eventually Isobel returns to his life -- and with it comes, eventually, the novel's one big twist and surprise.
       Harrison writes very well. His scenes are often stunning: small, with just the right details (including props like music, books, and motor vehicles), almost never overwritten or going on too long. Choe is almost beyond belief in what he does, but Harrison never lets this larger-than-life character take over the narrative. The novel unfolds like a nice patchwork, comfortably advancing -- though always teetering near being upset at the ominous edges (the business dealings, Choe).
       When the final twist comes, it comes as a complete surprise, and is all the more effective for that. What all along was straight, almost domestic fiction, take a science fiction turn. It's almost too much for the novel to bear, but Harrison navigates the reader through it well enough: the novel is a success -- just not, perhaps, the expected one.
       Signs of Life is also worth reading just for the simple pleasure of Harrison's style: comfortable, not showing off, but always intelligent. And the pieces making up the whole -- including the smaller episodes and the characters -- also all impress in how he has fashioned them.

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Signs of Life: Reviews: M. John Harrison: Other books by M. John Harrison under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Contemporary British fiction

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About the Author:

       M. John Harrison is a British author.

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