REVIEW: Vital Signs

Book by Tessa McWatt

Plumbing a long, seemingly happy marriage is perennial fiction fodder that inevitably yields a mystery at its core. In her sixth novel, Tessa McWatt enters the terrain from an oblique angle: Anna, a beloved wife and mother of three grown children, has been diagnosed with an aneurysm dripping blood into her brain that has reduced her speech to “involuntary riddles” (“wet, sarcastic hibiscus,” she will say, or “braised harps strung in trees”). Left untreated, she could die at any moment, but surgery also could kill her.

Mike, Anna’s husband of 30 years, provides the first-person narration for this slim, powerful bullet of a book, a poignant post-mortem of an ongoing marriage. Mike is a devoted if selfish husband at sea without the woman he married, the family’s linchpin, fully rendered via flashbacks. When Mike snivels he’s “not worthy” of his worldly wife, who abandoned her literary ambitions to teach English at a Toronto community college and raise their three children as he built a graphic design firm, the reader believes him. He reveals that he bristled against domestic constraints with repeated adulteries that he debates disclosing to his wife, not to apologize but to share his wondrous discovery: “I never knew that defiance and betrayal could feel so f–king great.” Never does he consider that Anna might know this, too.

If there’s a complaint to be made with this finely rendered tale, it’s that McWatt is overly fond of overheated metaphors (“The yellow paint on the wall is cracked and blistering like our failed imaginations,” for one) that can clang against her usually elegant prose. Throughout, this is punctuated with Mike’s road-sign graphics (by illustrator Aleksandar Macasev), which seem gimmicky and distracting at first but slowly acquire a haunting, elegiac power. And what better reminder that marital mapping is only visible from the rear-view mirror?