Jessie Greengrass’ debut novel, Sight, was one of my most highly anticipated releases of 2018. I had previously read, and very much enjoyed, her rich short story collection entitled An Account of the Decline of the Great Auk, and wanted to see how her prose style would unfold in a longer work.
Sight was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction last year, and has been described variously as ‘undoubtedly that rare thing. a genuinely new and assured voice in prose’ (A.L. Kennedy), ‘an outstanding first novel’ (Times Literary Supplement), and ‘remarkable and affecting’ (Literary Review). The novel’s blurb calls it ‘fiercely intelligent, beautifully written and deeply moving’. It was something of a surprise to me to see that the novel has had rather a mixed reception with regard to the bloggers I follow, and the reviews which I have read on Goodreads.
The novel is, essentially, a generational story about three females from the same family. The narrator of the piece recounts her journey toward becoming a mother, whilst remembering her own late mother. Woven in are a series of recollections from the childhood summers which she spent in London with her grandmother, a psychoanalyst, and the effects which this relationship had upon her. The narrator’s own story is bound up with a series of important medical discoveries, and other historical elements, which help to build a wider narrative – for instance, the Lumiere brothers’ filmmaking, and the invention of the X-ray.
The opening paragraph sets the tone of the whole with such insight: ‘The start of another summer, the weather uncertain but no longer sharply edged, and I am pregnant again.’ The narrator has a young daughter, who has already ‘begun to lose, lately, the tumbling immediacy of toddlerhood… Once her thoughts broke like weather across her face, but that readable plasticity is gone and she is not so transparent: complexity has brought concealment.’ The narrator’s life is fraught with sadness, in many ways; not only does she feel that she is beginning to lose the bond with her daughter, but she has had to go through a long period of her mother’s health declining before her death: ‘Her muscles were unsprung, her joints unlocked’. The effects of the bleed on the brain which her mother was found to have have been depicted in such detail: ‘As I sponged her head with water to get out the last of the soap from what was left of her hair or as I helped her dress I tried to be kind but for me to be so, for me to try to comfort or to shield her, to be more gentle with her than was necessary for the completion of the immediate task at hand, would have been only to more brutally invert our natural roles, and that itself would have been a kind of violence towards this woman who had always sought to protect me, to soften the impact of the world and keep me safe.’
Throughout, Greengrass has a profound understanding of her unnamed narrator. She gives a series of poignant ruminations about grief, and what it feels like to be left behind. Sight is almost heartbreaking in the fragility which it depicts: ‘If I thought, all through those freezing months I spent alone in a house whose owner had abandoned us, that I did not grieve, then it was because I had been expecting something else – something both larger and lesser, a monument or a mountain, simple, scaleable, and not this seeping in of space to undermine the smooth continuance of things.’
The relationship between the narrator and her mother is complex, and complicated: ‘Throughout the early stages of her illness I assumed that at some point in her dying the barrier between my mother and myself would be breached, no longer being necessary, and that through it some manner of truth would spill, coming as a trickle or a flood to engulf us and to wash us clean.’
The novel is a female-focused one; aside from the narrator’s partner, Johannes, who is the only named character, we learn very little indeed about other men in the family. Her father leaves the family home when she is just a child, something which one would imagine would be highly affecting, but this is barely touched upon in her recollections. Even Johannes appears as a shadowy being, existing in the narrator’s life, but always on the periphery about what she feels comfortable enough to reveal.
Sight is about the links, both biological and otherwise, between people, and how fragile they can be; how malleable, and how affecting. The novel is a highly introspective one, and whilst not a great deal occurs in terms of the plot, the character portraits which Greengrass have built are sharp and realistic. Sight feels both highly personal and evocative, and has such a depth of feeling about it. The narrator sometimes feels rather cold, and I did not much like her, but I believed in her throughout, and found her a realistic construct.
Greengrass’ prose is intelligent and perceptive, and Sight feels like an immersive and multilayered novel from its very first pages. The novel is filled with undercurrents, which rarely bob to the surface, but can always be felt. The parallel historical stories work well, despite being a little confusing at first. Greengrass’ approach feels both unusual and interesting, and the often frank prose feels quite profound in places. The author has not sugarcoated anything; instead, she gives a raw portrayal of motherhood and maternity. The loose threads of Sight are pulled together with skill, and the novel feels like an accomplished one, particularly given that it is a debut.