Book Review: Vital Signs by Tessa McWatt

Book Review:

Vital Signs by Tessa McWatt


By Zara D. Garcia-Alvarez / @ZaraAlexis


Category: Fiction

Author: Tessa McWatt

Format: Trade Paperback, 168 pages

Publisher: Vintage Canada

ISBN: 978-0-307-36001-4

Pub Date: July 24, 2012 (Trade Paperback)

Awards: A Globe and Mail Best Book and nominated for the OCM Bocas Prize



Vital Signs by Tessa McWatt is a potent story about a marriage, which reveals its inner workings at the deterioration of one of its partners’ minds as a result of a fatal brain aneurysm.

Anna, a fully competent and ambitious intellect having versed herself in the study and a Masters in English Literature and the quest of utmost self-sufficiency, falls prey to a brain aneurysm that compels her to confabulate not only her sentences, but also recreate new, non-existent memories.

And it is Mike, her guilt-ridden husband, a graphic designer, who tries desperately to reach his wife through the different language of pictorial signs and symbols.

The narrative through the voice of Mike is part medical testimony and forensic examination and a lucid confessional of a long marriage filled with the cool silence of acceptance and resignation and the hidden secrets of untold desires and brutality.

The most fascinating element in the book is the creatively written forms of Anna’s confabulations, which I found to be brilliant combinations of language that almost resemble poetry.

Some examples include:

“Sweet keys of sun in the dusk of the toaster,” – p.6

“Fissures on the hummingbird’s feet.” – p.6

“Turn up the jet trails; there are steam engines and poor magpies; useless to try to do anything about them,” – p.6

“I’m fine, I’m fine, the tortoises have lain and are crawling slowly and singing the song for six trees that run through the garden, and we could have dinner on the lawn, but Mike has brought the car and if the teeth are cleaned then we all…” – p.7

Aside from that the book includes the pictorial signs that the character Mike uses to try to communicate with his wife, which adds a new visual element to the storytelling.

And I also appreciated the gutsy realism of Mike’s thoughts, which were convincingly voiced in a male perspective written by a female author. The writing easily moves from tender to crass and reveals the potential and real internal dialogue of a man’s conflicted physical desire and his own personal sense of emotional pain and sentimentality.

The story and its writing is both a confessional and tribute to a marriage’s intimate autobiography as well as an example of its perseverance and tenderness through trial and crisis.

The reader will be most surprised by its almost profane honesty and moved by its characters’ struggle to cope and reconnect to one another beyond the harness of language.

It’s a beautiful, sad, and harsh novella that may bring its readers to avidly consider the beauty and delicacy of their own relationships and/or the longevity and fragility of a marriage partnership coiled by the promise of love, endurance, crisis, and compromise.


Zara’s Rating


A special thank you to Vintage Canada of Random House of Canada for providing me with a media copy in exchange for an unpaid, honest review.


What creative ways can you think of to reconnect with someone you love who no longer has the ability to communicate with you in the same way?