It’s said that there are only seven plots in fiction and a brief summary of Only a Signal Shown would suggest at first that it falls into a familiar category. In 1972 Eleanor meets Alec at university; they fall in love; problems arise; they part and are separated for several years, chance brings then together again and they realise they still love each other but there are obstacles to overcome and further misunderstandings. By this time readers probably have no real doubt that there will be a happy ending even though they may not work out how it can be achieved. So far, so typical but this is not just a typical love story.
To begin with Eleanor is no passive heroine but a sparky feminist. It is she who insists on their original parting. A visit to Alec’s uncle and family in Nigeria makes her realise she doesn’t want to be the kind of wife who meekly follows her husband wherever his career may take him or stay at home waiting for his return. Alec wants to be an archaeologist but Eleanor, helped by Alec’s brother Charlie, who is by no means as careless and destructive as he first appears, realises her true vocation is to be an artist. After initial struggles she succeeds and travels the world to find material for her books. Although Alec also becomes successful, not only as an archaeologist but as a television personality, he remains based in his home city, Cardiff, and marries the girl his strong-minded mother has more-or-less chosen for him.
By the time they meet again, by coincidence in Copenhagen, twelve years later, Eleanor is a success in her own right and Alec already knows and admires her work. After that they keep in touch, off and on. Sometimes their careers take them to the same places. The old attraction is still there but Alec is trapped in an unhappy marriage with a mentally unstable wife and Eleanor is determined not to be a home-wrecker. Then when some unwanted and exaggerated publicity frees Alec from his marriage at last, it also nearly causes him to lose Eleanor for good.
The narrative style is interesting. Events are mainly seen from Eleanor’s point-of-view and little fragments of her thoughts in italics give the reader a quick insight into her feelings at that moment. Rather than presenting her readers with a continuous story, the author selects the most significant incidents in Alec and Eleanor’s relationship. There are gaps of several years between these incidents and each one has a different setting. The author is much travelled and she makes use of her own memories and experiences to provide some vivid snapshots of an extraordinary variety of backgrounds. I particularly enjoyed the atmosphere of Copenhagen in the bitter winter of 1985 when the sea froze. There is a sense of the intense cold but also the warmth of indoor spaces often suggested by wonderful accounts of food, pastries and hot chocolate, sizzling pork, red cabbage with blackcurrant juice. As the author is, like her heroine, half Danish, the Danish food is particularly vividly described – I almost began to be persuaded that I would enjoy herring minced with beetroot – but there is a great sense of relishing good food throughout the book. She is good at conveying a sense of its colour, scent and taste.
Often too a well-chosen phrase can bring the place vividly to life, whether it’s the pastel coloured buildings of St Petersburg or the damp tents at the Hay-on-Wye literary festival. At one point the scenery even takes on a symbolic significance. Soon after Eleanor and Alec become lovers again, the sudden appearance of the Himalayas: ’Pale and ghostly as if they didn’t exist in real life…little curls of mist swirled about them, as if to say we’ll be gone before you know it.’ is followed by Eleanor’s thought, ‘We are living in fairyland – just for now…’ .
There were times perhaps when I felt I would have liked something more than a snapshot. Not only does the story move rapidly between different locations, but it also introduces a good many peripheral characters and makes reference to some important world events. Fascinating as these references were, I sometimes felt they were passed over too quickly and their relevance to the main story was not always obvious. When, however, Eleanor becomes caught up in the South African invasion of Lesotho in 1998,world events and the personal history of Alec and Eleanor both come together in an exciting climax. After that the rest of the story could seem a let down but Alec’s father Norman is one of the most sympathetic characters in the book. Near the beginning we are told how he suffers from nightmares about losing his twin brother at Monte Casino, so it makes for a satisfying and moving ending to the novel, when he, helped largely by Eleanor, is able at last to confront and come to terms with the demons from his past.