From the Publisher
More and more every day I find myself drawn into the puzzle of
her speech, determined to unravel meaning in each sentence, because
now I'm sure it's there, if I only listen to her in a way I have
failed to listen for thirty years. - From Vital
Signs by Tessa McWatt
After thirty years of marriage, producing three now-grown children,
Mike and Anna have settled into entrenched domesticity. She is
skillful and poised and still beautiful, an instructor of English
at the city college. He is a successful graphic artist on the verge
of retirement, his awards and ambitions and accomplishments largely
behind him. Though the couple's erotic life has dimmed somewhat, he
still considers her ravishing.
But their apparent balance is thrown asunder when Anna breaks the
normal silence of their breakfast table with uncontrollable babble
about hummingbirds. After an emergency consultation with a
neurologist, they have a diagnosis: confabulation, or the
scrambling of time, memories and language due to a dangerous
aneurysm in Anna's brain that could burst at any moment.
Not knowing how much time they have left with the beloved Anna,
Mike and the kids rally together to support her through the terror
of her disintegrating mind. But the unbearable strain of the
situation is worsened by another worry that is haunting Mike: he
suspects that his two eldest children, Charlotte and Fred, know of
his past infidelity.
Several years ago, Anna and Mike took a trip to Egypt, hoping the
shared adventure would thwart their mid-life marriage blues.
Instead, the trip deepened the chasm, his sexual jealousy and
insecurities swamping her attempts at intimacy. Their estrangement
worsened when they returned home to discover that their youngest
daughter, Sasha, was in hospital, having overdosed on drugs. Anna
was furious with Mike for his cool response at the time, which she
interpreted as unfeeling.
Two weeks later Mike began his affair, with a much younger woman
dissimilar to Anna in all respects. He persisted in the romance for
three years, feeling young and vital and once again in control, at
least for a time.
The affair is long over but today, as Anna disappears into a
terrifying collapse of time and language, Mike is wracked by his
dilemma: should he keep his silence about the affair and spare his
family more pain, or should he seize the opportunity to be wholly
honest with the woman he loves, possibly in the last days of her
life? Perhaps the answer lies in his drawings, the means of
communication with which he is most comfortable. Can he codify his
emotions into pictures? Can he articulate his love and regret and
sorrow to his wife - and to himself - without having to say the
heart-rending words out loud?
Narrated by a terrified male protagonist whose deep yearning for
forgiveness might only be granted by a woman in the grips of
dementia, Tessa McWatt's Vital Signs is a
thought-provoking and mesmerizing literary accomplishment - a
compassionate and visceral study of a marriage at the brink of
From the Hardcover edition.
About the Author
Tessa McWatt was born in Georgetown, Guyana, and was three years
old when her family moved to Canada. Raised in Toronto in an
extended family, she pursued literature, sports and music, but knew
from a very young age that she wanted to write. She studied English
at Queen's University and later at the University of Toronto, where
her Master's degree focused on post-colonial literature, exploring
themes of the outsider in society and conflicting notions of
Upon completing her university studies McWatt was employed as an
editor and college instructor, living in Montreal, Paris and
Ottawa. Published in 1998, her first novel, Out of My
Skin, is the story of an adopted Canadian woman
trying to define her roots. Her second novel, Dragons
Cry (2000), explores family relationships and love and was
shortlisted for the City of Toronto Book Award and the Governor
General's Literary Award for Fiction.
In 1999 McWatt moved to London, England, to research her third
novel, This Body (2004). While working
part-time teaching creative writing and helping to raise two
children, she began to explore a new European angle to the themes
of family, memory, migration and post-colonialism. She also wrote a
young-adult novella titled There's No Place Like .
. . (2004). Step Closer (2009), her fourth novel,
was researched and written while travelling in Canada, Spain, Kenya
McWatt developed and leads the MA Writing: Imaginative Practice at
the University of East London, a program that fosters new writing
through encouraging students to experiment with hybridity and to
move beyond traditional notions of form and genre. Exploring
different forms of writing, she collaborated with a graphic artist
for Vital Signs, her latest novel. McWatt is also
working with John Berger, the British novelist, painter and art
historian, to develop a film based on his novel To the
McWatt divides her time between her two extended families in
London, England, and Toronto, Canada.
Aleksandar Macasev is a New York-based visual artist.
From the Hardcover edition.
1. Discuss the opening epigraph, by T.S. Eliot, in the context
of the novel to follow.
2. Examine the pictograms Mike has created to represent his
family (pp. 1-25). What do they each mean? Are they apt? Why or why
3. Discuss Anna's confabulations. Are they all gibberish? Is she
the only character to experience them? Have you come up against
confabulations in your own life?
4. Why does Mike feel that "the past is punishing Anna for
unrequited love" (p. 18)?
5. Mike often describes the cornfields using deeply associative
imagery. What does the corn mean for him?
6. Mike says "death has made my every action suspect. Either I
have a duty to tell her everything or no right at all to taint her
memory with my version of reality. I have no idea which of these
choices is the right one" (p. 103). What do you think? Why is Mike
so desperate to tell Anna his secret?
7. Discuss the significance of the stories Mustafa tells about
Hatshepsut and the god of fertility, and her thwarted plans for her
temple. What is the meaning of Mike's pictogram for that memory (p.
8. Discuss the sexual relationship between Mike and Anna. How
has her illness impacted it? Can a couple have a consensual erotic
life when one partner is experiencing dementia?
9. "What more than a sex and a pulse - a slow, deep pulse - make
a woman? Yes, this is the difficulty. How to represent Anna. Not
the me of Anna or the children of Anna. But Anna's essence. Who is
she?" (p. 98). Does Mike ever grasp the answer to this?
10. Discuss Mike's perspective on women - his wife, his lover,
his daughters - throughout the novel.
11. At times Mike describes Anna's imperfections with seeming
revulsion; at other times he appears to idealize her and what he
considers to be her "exoticism." What do you think of the quality
of his love for her?
12. Do you think Anna knows of Mike's betrayal? If yes, has she
forgiven him? Would you?
13. What does Mike mean when he describes Anna's face as "first
on the list of things that I have never truly trusted" (p.
14. What is the meaning of Mike's final drawing, of the
matchstick man? (Consider it in the context of the opening
epigraph, in the context of Mike's other drawings, and also
consider that "matchstick man" is a slang term for a con
15. The novel is told in its entirety through the voice and
perspective of Mike. Do you consider him to be a reliable narrator?
How would the story have been different if told through the eyes of