Sight by Jessie Greengrass Review

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.

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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?


Women’s Prize Longlist Predictions

The Women’s Prize for Fiction (formerly the Bailey’s prize) is one of my favourites, so I’m looking forward to the longlist being announced on 8 March.  Here are my predictions.

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

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I loved this. Eleanor is a singular character, sympathetic even though she is tactless and anti-social. Her weekends spent drinking vodka alone in her flat are sad and cast light on loneliness, something we can all relate to on some level. I expected a bleak story (and there is one) but it’s also drily funny and I laughed out loud often. Raymond and his mother are too perfect, and her mother too evil, but it still rang true.

The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gower

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This lived up to the hype. I was drawn in immediately to 18th century London: Mr Hancock anxiously awaiting his ship and famed courtesan Angelica Neal trying to live independently. Beautifully written (but doesn’t feel overwritten); Gowar used to work in museums and her descriptions of objects and materials give texture to the story.  She also finds the comical side. It’s not too supernatural despite the mermaid, although I found the second half less convincing than the first. A wonderful debut.

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

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There is a lot of heart and soul in this book. Good portrayal of privileged and troubled teens, white-bread parents, artist Mia with daughter Pearl and the town of Shaker Heights (suburbia on steroids). Mystery surrounds Mia and an adoption dispute affects them all. It felt contrived at times, Mia too saintly, Mrs Richardson too brittle & overall I thought it tried to do too much. Points of view changed so I didn’t become attached to any one character.  Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington are adapting this for television – I think it will be fabulous on screen.

Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie

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Extremely good.  A re-telling of Antigone set in contemporary London, the sister is the story’s hero. Her brother is a jihadist – I wanted to empathise with him more, but even so, Shamsie succeeds in putting the reader in this family’s shoes: I haven’t read anything like it (Orhan Pamuk perhaps).  Engaging writing and has the high drama of Greek tragedy.  It grew on me as it went on and ended strongly.  Recommended.

Tin Man by Sarah Winman

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This left me a little bit broken. I resisted the sentimentality at first, but the characters Ellis, Michael and Anne drew me in and I could not put it down. A story of friends grappling with love in Oxford and London, told with great care, truth and occasional humour. Incredibly moving throughout. The scenes of neighbours and friends helping each other through tough times (death; the AIDS crisis) were simply told, but heart-warming.  This is a refined, accomplished work. I like the economy of language and how deftly Sarah Winman moves between scenes and characters. Less is more, things are left unsaid, but she is careful to show us the good side of people. I appreciated this optimism in a book with so much sadness tugging at its heart!

Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout

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I loved these stories, based in the same town and whose characters are loosely connected. It’s comforting meeting characters more than once, and the gentle atmosphere despite the dark subjects. The spare prose is beautifully restrained. And while town life moves slowly, the stories are vivid and propel you forward. Family, loneliness and redemption are explored, with heartfelt characters: flawed, overweight, creepy, but she treats them with compassion.

Winter by Ali Smith

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The second in Ali Smith’s series of seasonal books.  The first, Autumn, is on my shelves and will be my next read I think.  And then I’m very much looking forward to Winter – everyone is raving about it so I have no doubt it will make the long-list.

Sight by Jessie Greengrass

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This is my current read.  It’s exquisite so far, with lyrical but precise sentences that remind me of Virginia Woolf.  Max Porter has compared it to Shirley Hazzard (one of my favourite authors) and it has a similar, careful beauty and intelligence that feeds your mind as you read.  Loving it.  Eric from Lonesome Reader has tipped this to win the Booker prize so we shall see!

Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan

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This is on my shelf to read.  I’m including it on the strength of A Visit From the Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan’s earlier book which I absolutely loved.

Fire Sermon by Jamie Quatro

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The story of a woman’s crisis in her marriage and faith, this sounds intense.  But it’s getting some high praise so I’ll be intrigued to see if it makes the long-list.

How many do you think I’ll get right? I’d love to hear your predictions.

Happy International Women’s Day!