Book review: Sight by Jessie Greengrass

The title of Jessie Greengrass’s Women’s Prize short listed debut novel, Sight is to be taken at its widest interpretation; it is essentially about seeing and being seen, what little we understand of ourselves and the incomprehensibility of other people and their lives. The novel follows her prize-winning and magnificently titled An Account of the Decline of the Great Auk, According to One Who Saw It and gives voice to an unnamed female protagonist who is pregnant with her second child, she laments: “it strikes me as extraordinary, now, that we should be so hidden from ourselves, our bodies and our minds so inaccessible, in such large part unchartered; but there is a thrill to it, too”.

Sight is chiefly an internal monologue that shifts between past and present as the narrator reflects on her indecision about having her first child, she says “I wanted a child fiercely but couldn’t imagine myself pregnant, or a mother, seeing only how I was now or how I thought I was: singular, centreless, afraid.” Her decision comes in the wake of caring for her mother as she dies from cancer. She examines her relationship with her mother and her mother’s relationship with her own psychoanalyst mother (the narrator’s maternal grandmother). In the midst of her second pregnancy she feels the pull of her toddler daughter growing away from her “like an amputation”. The almost unbearable weight born of the heavy pendulum swing between intimacy and distance in mother-child relationships is the central contemplation to which Greengrass attends.

The narrator’s monologue is interspersed with insights into major developments in medicine, themselves fascinating stories; the discovery of the x-ray by Wilhelm Rontgen; the development of psychoanalysis by Sigmund Freud; and John Hunter’s gruesome eighteenth century anatomical and surgical experiments. These scientific discoveries are all types of revelation, ways of knowing; they run parallel to the novel’s meditation on our quest to comprehend ourselves and other people. The narrator muses on the ephemeral nature of memory and the inevitability of change; the seasons turn, our lives transmute and everything we know and hold eventually falls away; meanwhile we pull the scraps together to try to assemble meaning out of the paths we take, an otherwise “mapless ramble, haunting and unthought-through”.

Greengrass read through texts at London’s Wellcome Library to inform her knowledge of medical history; she did this research at the same time as trying to become pregnant; the novel was realised before the baby. Scenes in Sight see her protagonist lost in the collection of the same library. Greengrass deftly holds the reader on the edge of literary form, we experience a blurring of the line between fiction and memoir; sparse dialogue occasionally interrupts the narrator’s thoughts, veering the reader back into the landscape of fiction. The somewhat detached narrator’s voice mimics scientific enquiry, holding the reader at a clinical distance; we are interested observers, the narrator our subject of enquiry.

Greengrass recently wrote in the Guardian that, “although a fundamentally female experience, pregnancy exists in literature when it does so at all, as a male problem”. She lists memoirs by Rachel Cusk, Maggie Nelson and Rivka Galchen as some of the few examples of pregnancy written about unflinchingly and from a woman’s perspective. She says, “to write about pregnancy – to try to articulate the desire for it, its uncomfortable realities, its disorienting aftermath – felt transgressive”. Greengrass joins a growing list of women writing the female experience of pain, health issues, and damaging interactions with the medical system. As Greengrass states: “Women’s bodies can be many things. They can be mirrors, weights, rewards; but so often they are seen from outside. Experiences that are unique to them remain anomalous, smoothly impenetrable, like bubbles of water to which significance refuses to adhere.” The cracking open of womens’ experiences to be held up and examined in the cold light is well overdue in literature; Greengrass is helping to remedy this.

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