A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
First of all, this is not a review. It can’t be. Signs of Life is a true story and it’s one that I engaged with so deeply that I cannot hope to be objective. I’ll see this piece then as more a literary tipping of my hat to the extraordinary woman that is Natalie Taylor and to the man who was once her husband.
Natalie Taylor was five months pregnant when her husband Josh died in a freak accident. He was carveboarding when he fell and hit his head in such a way that his brain was severely injured.
Uncle Alex cries. “He fell backward and hit his head. It crushed his skull into the back of his brain. He died in less than three minutes.”
Last night, right before I went to bed, Josh went out Carveboarding. A Carveboard is a modified skateboard. It rocks side to side and imitates the motion of a surfboard. Carveboards are used on pavement embankments. Josh was not wearing a helmet at the time of the accident. He never wore a helmet.
I would like to go off on a slight tangent here and point out that since reading Signs of Life, I have noticed a few dozen people out carveboarding in my neighbourhood (my town is full of surfers and as hinted above, surfing and carveboarding are natural companions). Not one of the carveboarders I saw was wearing a helmet. I searched Youtube for videos of carveboarders and most of them weren’t wearing helmets either. Seemingly a lot of well-meaning people asked Natalie after Josh’s death “why wasn’t he wearing a helmet?” As if this painful question could somehow make things better, as if it could reverse a tragedy.
Josh wasn’t wearing a helmet because that was his choice. We all take risks every day. That was a risk he took. If he thought he was going to fall off his board and be fatally injured then he no doubt would have worn a helmet. Let’s move on.
Signs of Life charts Natalie’s everyday existence in the sixteen months between Josh’s death and her son’s first birthday. It is drawn from the diaries that Natalie kept at the time, and as well as being a memoir it is also a consideration of many famous works of literature and how Natalie connected with them in the period after her husband’s death. The inclusion of great novels, poems and plays isn’t some cheap device; Natalie is an English teacher and in her grief she ponders the books she is reading at home as well as those she is teaching her secondary school classes, remarking upon the ways in which those texts have changed and taken on new meaning for her since Josh died. Natalie discusses The Godfather, Harry Potter, The Great Gatsby, Macbeth and many more, and far from being trite summaries, Natalie talks of these works with great clarity and insight. Although I’ve studied English at Master’s degree level, I still learnt a lot about literature from reading Signs of Life and I was very glad that Natalie chose to weave these texts into her own. The texts are made yet more interesting as Natalie shares the opinions and reactions of her students, who are vividly depicted here.
Even with the addition of these interesting literary examinations, Signs of Life might sound horribly depressing. But it isn’t, I promise. There’s sorrow aplenty, of course, but beyond that this is a surprisingly life-affirming, hopeful and at times funny read.
After the accident, Natalie has to learn to pass her days without her husband. She attends antenatal classes alone, goes through labour without Josh as her birth partner, stops wearing her wedding ring, drives herself everywhere and no longer has her husband as a buffer between herself and her in-laws (with whom she consequently grows much closer) and Natalie negotiates a thousand other elements of life that are starkly different in widowhood – raising a child being the greatest of them.
At one point, near the end of the book, Natalie makes a habit of asking herself “what are you afraid of?” and consequently for the past week I have been asking myself the same thing. At this precise moment, what I am afraid of is not doing justice to Signs of Life. I am afraid that this piece will make the book sound heavy and bleak, when it is no such thing.
To get a clearer picture of the book, I perhaps need to give you a clearer picture of Natalie’s husband Josh. Josh is described as someone who loved life, who made time for his family and friends, who made people laugh, who kissed the women he loved. He was energetic, brave, sporty and adventurous. He died in his prime; he died when he and Natalie were still experiencing the great infatuation and romance of early marriage. His death at the age of 27 should not have occurred. Over a thousand people attended his funeral. To those who knew him it seemed unthinkable that someone as vivacious and active as Josh could be dead.
Natalie is at first naturally floored by her grief but she also gets to a point where she starts to kick back. She becomes angry. She is suddenly intolerant about things that she never minded before. She reads a certain chicklit book about a woman “trying to find herself” by an author she admired before, but after Josh’s death the book becomes so irritating that it grates on her nerves every time she opens it.
First of all, I probably shouldn’t be reading this book. I am fully aware that there is an entire population of mothers who live a daily life of complete malcontents because their identities have been “reduced” to driving children around in a minivan, grocery shopping, and doing laundry. I know that these are the women who end up snorting crystal meth or resorting to alcohol or who yell at their kids in that tone that just screams “I am a bitter human being”. They watch Oprah, they think about having affairs (some probably do), and all of this in their minds is justified by the idea that they’ve been “suppressing” their real selves their entire life. Tragic. So sad I could cry. These are women who make choices their entire lives – they choose to be married, they choose to have children, they choose to not go back to work – and get everything they want only to one day wake up and say, “I am horribly unhappy”. If I could personally punch all of these women in the face, I would.
However, after becoming a mother, Natalie gets a different perspective:
Remember how I cursed that book I was reading about a stay-at-home mom who dared to whine about her stay-at-home mom life? Now, as a mom who doesn’t sleep or get dressed on a consistent basis because I don’t have the time or energy, I am in awe that there was once a point in my life when I could actually read a book. More important, I am sorry I said those things and thought those things. I didn’t know. I wasn’t a part of the club yet. I just want to take a moment to say I’m sorry. At the time I cursed all of you, I wasn’t a mom. Now that I am one, I know all the secrets. I am now one of you and this job is not easy.
Perhaps one reason why I engaged so much with this book is the fact that it has been fifteen months since I became a parent. The pure bubbling joy of being pregnant and holding my newborn baby is fresh in my mind. Even the idea of my partner never getting to meet his child is so awful, so devastating, that I don’t even want to write it here. And yet that was the reality for Natalie.
What, some might ask, is the purpose of Signs of Life? Is it an outlet for Natalie’s grief? Is it intended to immortalise Josh? Was it written as a gift to Josh’s friends and family? Perhaps it is all of those things. It is also a book for every person who has ever lost – or who will ever lose – someone they love, which I suppose makes it for all of us.
Yes, I cried. Yes, I laughed. And yes, books have had this effect on me before. But never before have I felt so changed by a book. The world looks more inviting after reading Signs of Life, as if I am suddenly seeing it the way Josh might have seen it. I feel that I am being braver, I am taking more risks, and I am fully appreciating what I have. I have never and will never meet Natalie Taylor and her family, and yet through this book I feel that I know them. After reading Signs of Life, Natalie feels like a friend, and Josh like a friend that I have lost. This is absolutely crazy and yet must be testament to the power of the book. For all its strengths, Signs of Life is also one of the most candid books that I have ever read and for this reason alone I would urge anybody reading this piece to buy a copy of Signs of Life this instant.
As if pre-empting her readers’ new resolutions to be better and braver, Natalie touches on the idea of character change. To quote her once more:
It’s safe to say that none of us will be the same now that we have lived through the death of Josh. Right now I firmly believe I will never be as happy as I was. I will never exude that carefree smile I see on my face in my wedding pictures. Life will never look as bright, not simply because he’s not here, but also because I now know that things aren’t always fair in the world. But will I change? Will any of us change? Four months later, after vowing to live life differently, I wonder how much power those grief-stricken resolutions have. In the days following the funeral, Chris told Ashley that it was his job to make sure that the baby and I are always taken care of. But he’s back in Denver hunting elk and sometimes forgets to return my phone calls. Deedee said she was finally going to start on the much-needed renovation of her house – Josh had always wanted her to fix it up. Months later she hasn’t mentioned it again. I said I would never take a moment for granted. I would never get annoyed with stupid things like traffic or waiting in long lines at the post office but I have gone back on those promises over and over. I said I would never reject an invitation to celebrate something, but months later and I am already complaining about upcoming weddings and showers. So have we changed? Can I still change?
Four years on from Josh’s death, Natalie has completed gruelling tests of physical endurance, has had a book published and has seen her tiny baby grow into a thriving little boy. Even if life will never look as bright for Natalie, perhaps the publication and (I hope) great success of this book will add some light to the greyer days.
Two Roads Books, ISBN-13: 978-1444724677, paperback. 320 pages.