Another one of those “this needs a full review” moments.
Sight is a beautiful, singular novel by Jessie Greengrass. Reading it is like entering an intricate, secret world with the narrator, who is as curious as you are to unlock its mysteries.
Narrated by a woman who is pregnant with her second child, it is partly a meditation on motherhood. As she grapples with the choice whether to have a baby, it is really asking how can we fully see ourselves, understand the people close to us and cope with the sense of nostalgia that there is a better life, or version of us, just out of reach.
Greengrass is unflinchingly honest on the question of being a mother and a daughter. The narrator is ambivalent about becoming a parent, struggles with the changes to her body and self-identity. Her marriage, too, is realistically depicted. Here she describes missing her husband, Johannes, when away, but she knows that on her return,
“I would walk back through the door and all this certainty of love would fade behind the unwashed windows and the unbought milk to the usual chafing familiarity with one another.”
Her prose is exquisite: long, lyrical sentences with a rhythm that propels you forward. The musicality and attention to thought reminded me of Virginia Woolf, especially Mrs Dalloway walking through London, and the realism and honesty are a little like Elena Ferrante, but having said that, her voice and style feel original.
Greengrass relates stories of Rontgen, who invented the X-ray, Freud’s psychoanalysis and John Hunter’s surgical experiments. She tries to see how things really are – in pregnancy, marriage and family – and seems to find comfort in these pioneers who tried to pierce the surface and really see our bodies and minds. These examples illuminate her thoughts and enrich the story.
Throughout, we see humans imperfectly striving to ‘see’ better – “but the price of sight is wonder’s diminishment”.
The narrator faces moments of transition – her mother passing from life to death; her pregnancy to birth; and from not-seeing to the sight of bones through an X-ray. But she is also aware of the transitory nature of life – all the ephemeral moments, silences and mistakes. Slowly she comes to terms with the value of these in-between times, from the things left unsaid between her and her mother to the cold drinks she shared with her grandmother, Doctor K. Her relationship with Johannes contains gaps and silences:
“… somewhere in the space between us, the uncertain image of our future shivered.”
The scientists are a key to this insight. They are doers: in their search for truth they experiment and, if that experiment does not succeed, the next one might. John Hunter tried and failed to perform a Caesarean operation; after he died, his pupil carried on his work.
Here she reflects on how we choose our life (moment by moment):
“… how easily, how unwittingly we might break each possible future in favour of another and how, looking back, in place of what had been possible we would see only that thin contingent line, what happened, rising through the vast and empty darkness of what did not.”
Art and literature seek truly to see and describe elements of who we are, and I loved the juxtaposition of scientists doing the same. It was uplifting to think of those great figures of history stumbling but persevering. Life is a series of acts, failures and transitions to our fully realised selves.
Sight has been long-listed for the Women’s Prize for Fiction and is my tip to win (although, caveat – I won’t have a chance to read the whole list so my opinion is wildly unqualified!).
What are you reading at the moment?