Vital Signs is a novel that takes us deep inside a marriage in crisis, teasing out the unspoken rules that run - or ruin - love relationships.
So much is taken for granted in a long marriage, so much is relied upon, so much is resented, so much is never spoken. But when Anna, Mike's beautiful and self-possessed wife, begins to mangle her sentences as a result of a brain aneurysm that could kill her at any moment, it's as if Mike has woken from a long dream in which he was only thinking about himself. Or is he still only thinking about himself? In his panic to show his wife that she has been his entire universe, will he finally confess all the ways in which he rebelled against her power over him, the way he betrayed her?
Incoherent with guilt, he uses his talent as a graphic artist to draw his way closer to his wife, trying to communicate with her, and himself too, through signs and symbols. Mike is deeply flawed, hovering on the knife-edge of a confession, selfishly looking to the woman he loves for absolution even as she faces the possibility of her own death. And through this portrait of a marriage in crisis, Tessa McWatt leads us deftly and deeply into the workings of a relationship that blooms and withers and reblooms over time, and into the lies and the truths necessary to sustain it.
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Part love story, part forensic examination of the psyche, Tessa McWatt digs deep into what makes us human in this disturbing portrait of family life. -
The fact that McWatt can so handily meld these two marriages (one terrific, the other a sham) into one is a testament to her intelligence and courage as a writer. Though brief, Vital Signs is packed with fascinating insight... It's a gripping read... - Globe & Mail
Classical unity, mastery of voice and a quiet absorption with the philosophical quandaries of meaning and time make Vital Signs . . . a mesmerizing read. . . . [A] beautiful book. . . . A story of such enigma and economy. . . . [I]n Vital Signs her substantial gifts overshadow any flaws. An expert at uncovering what lies beneath, McWatt exposes the emotional circuitry of a family. She depicts the undulating landscape of an enduring marriage with poignancy and power. . . . Mike's exquisitely articulate illustrations, which are scattered throughout, make the novel a visual treat. Through her symbolic use of language, McWatt conveys how human beings can produce meaning to challenge the absurdity of life. She draws our attention to transcendent moments even while representing the unceasing flow of time. In this she is like T.S. Eliot, whom she cites in an epigraph at the front of the book. As with Eliot's poetry, Vital Signs is a work of literature, criticism and philosophy all at once: A formidable intellectual hat trick. At the same time McWatt tells a sincere and simple tale, that like children, we wish would never end. - National Post
Tessa McWatt has a thing for medicine-fortunately. The hugely talented author is skilled at using medical material as metaphor. . . . In . . . Vital Signs, she uses her grasp of brain aneurisms to great emotional effect. One thing about McWatt: she's never clinical. . . . McWatt has a gift for small details (Anna's language lapses are remarkable), and her pristine prose captures intense emotion with painful precision. In her expert hands, the story becomes a meditation on the human desire for control, our hubris in imagining we know the worst and the ways a crisis can change some things but not everything. All in just 176 pages. Pretty damned good. - NOW (Toronto) NNNN (editors’ pick)
A wonderful, thoughtful tale about love, language and living. - Bella
Tessa McWatt was born in Guyana, and moved to Canada with her family when she was three. She is the author of five earlier novels; her second, Dragons Cry, was a finalist for the Governor General's Literary Award for Fiction and the City of Toronto Book Award. She developed and leads the MA in Writing: Imaginative Practice programme at the University of East London. She divides her time between London and Toronto.