Rating: 3 stars
When I first started to read Sight by Jessie Greengrass, I couldn’t quite get into it, so I put it aside for a week, read some nonfiction, a book I’ll return to and review later.
Attempt two went better, in a way. Better because I was drawn in by the confessional tone of her prose. In a way because I felt an immediate connection with the narrator, and a specific circumstance in her life, that didn’t feel entirely positive and yet carried recognition.
The novel is split into three parts. Each part has its own science story that is metaphor for the events happening in the narrator’s life. Each scientist is someone who sees the unseeable, bringing the hidden into view.
Sight felt like a restrained howl to me. It seemed to be a voice needing to be heard but never quite getting the listener it wants. The narrator describes herself as singular, centreless, afraid.
She searches for signs that say she’s on the right track, guidance that tells her what to do next, how to be an adult.
Her circumstance, the thing that has paused her, is the illness and death of her mother, and the manner in which their relationship necessarily changed. This is where I found recognition, where the connection wasn’t entirely positive.
…and so our lives began to fold in around one another, tangling, contracting, her need for me forcing into reverse that inevitable process of separation which was the work of adolescence.
We were often silent with one another. It began to seem that the only solution to our physical closeness was an emotional distance – we hid from one another, we shrank apart, until all affection was leached from our touch and only pragmatism, necessity, was left.
— We could ask for a wheelchair and I could take you to sit outside. They have a pond —
but she refused, and that was that. A decision had been made, somewhere in the closing corridors of her mind: that she would no longer try to reach beyond herself, nor put aside the business of dying in favour of an experience she had no way of holding on to. She could have been generous. I might have liked to have, later on, this memory of sitting with her watching sunlight fall on water, a last fragment of accord, but she had nothing left to give me now, not even this.
I brought her fruit she wouldn’t eat, grapes and mangoes, watermelon, and I read to her until she drifted into sleep and then I went and found the nurses or the ambulance drivers drinking tea on their break and told them how important it was that I be able to take my mother home again, my tearful fervour the result of a denial, not of how close my mother was to death, how it shivered about us, a long boundary to be crossed, but of how I wished it would be done because I was exhausted and because there was nothing I could do now but sit and watch, and even that was too much.
I had a bad week with my grief in the week I couldn’t find it in me to read Greengrass’s book. I’d been dreaming about my mum, about my childhood home, about relationships ending. I was talking to someone on social media about books and films. This person mistyped tear-jerking as year-jerking and I thought, yes. Grief is like that. It comes and goes. It doesn’t necessarily bring tears, but it tugs at parts of you and makes years both short and endless. Grief is a year-jerker. And then I picked up this book and began to read.
The combination of navel gazing self-obsession and scientific history worked for me. Yes, the narrator was hard work at times, but we’re all hard work when we’re grieving and trying to work out who we are and whether that’s who we want to be. It was the interweaving of the story of the discovery of X-rays with the narrator’s negotiation of grief that brought the book to life. I was reminded of one of my favourite books recently, Richard Powers’s The Goldbug Variations, which hops between the story of the race to understand DNA, a love affair between two historians and their pursuit of a scientist who wanted to be forgotten. Sight has a similar feel.
What I particularly liked about Sight was the reason the narrator becomes absorbed in the life of Wilhelm Röntgen. Following her mother’s death, emptied by grief, she begins to read.
To fill the space that even grief refused to occupy I had read, at first indiscriminately and widely and then, as I began at last to reconstruct myself, building piecemeal on the foundations of all that had been demolished by my mother’s death, on Wilhelm Röntgen and the early history of the X-ray.
Reading was my escape as my mum’s illness progressed. In the year following her death I hoovered up books. I have begun to slow, though, to live more and hide less.
The narrator spends days in the Wellcome Library, distracting herself with medical texts and random lines of research, until she settles on Röntgen. Wellcome Collection is the lead partner for the collaborative exhibition I’m curating and the image Greengrass references, the X-ray of Bertha Röntgen’s hand, appeared in the first version of Electricity: The spark of life at Wellcome in February 2017. I wonder whether Greengrass saw the exhibition.
This X-ray story struck me as a metaphor for the insolidity of the inner life. Invisible rays make the hidden visible. Sometimes it is life affirming, proof of the viewer’s existence, to see their bones, their brains, backlit on a light box. For the narrator it’s proof that she is unremarkable, the same as everyone else.
Her back story is one of only daughters raised by single mothers, an ancestry of only two generations because of the absence of fathers and the inscrutability of the mothers. This, it seems, is the root of the narrator’s feeling of drift.
Her exploration of her relationship with her mother and her grandmother is interwoven with the story of Sigmund Freud. Her grandmother and Freud shared a profession and the narrator describes the summers she spent at her grandmother’s house as a child, trying to dodge the psychoanalytical lessons her grandmother wanted to share but wouldn’t force on her. In adulthood she reflects on how she regrets not having the tools she could have had that might have helped her navigate her grief.
Greengrass draws together the metaphor of Röntgen’s X-ray images with Freud’s searching after understanding of the self when she has the narrator say this
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 uncharted; but there is a thrill to it, too; that same mixture of terror and quickening which confronts us where underneath the sea the light gives out and unnamed creatures float, eyes huge or non-existent, spines and scales unseen, or in those vast and empty tracts of space where rusting shuttles float, unmeeting. Perhaps this is what Freud felt, all through the summer of 1897 … this sense of yearning outwards into darkness, the prayer for understanding that is nothing but a silent thought in a vast and vaulted space — and Röntgen, two autumns earlier, at that moment when he saw his bones laid bare: perhaps it was some version of this same desire to marvel that moved him to place his hand upon the screen, his fingers open as if waiting for an unknown gift – but the price of sight is wonder’s diminishment. This was Bertha Röntgen’s fear – and perhaps, after all, her refusal to look was neither stubbornness nor failure of vision but only an intuitive grasp of what a death the loss of mystery might be.
There is an interlude, in which the narrator, pregnant for the second time, is granted a night of solitude, her partner and their first daughter going on ahead to their holiday home while she rests in a hotel, recovering from the flight. She describes her feelings about being separated from her daughter. First it gave me insight into how my friends with children must feel, that conflict between wanting to be an individual and not wanting to be apart from your children. And then I realised that this is simply love. This is what love is. Wanting another person, but not wanting to lose your identity, and missing them when you’re apart. The narrator puts it like this
I had thought that I would continue to fall backwards into singularity as to a norm from which my deviation was temporary, and that without her I would be myself again, whole and undivided; but instead I am half-made; a house with one wall open to the wind –“
In the final part, the narrator’s experience of pregnancy is interwoven with a history of female anatomy, from the wax models with removable organs to the first autopsy on the body of a pregnant woman who died almost at full term and the first attempt at a Caesarean section. Greengrass chooses the career of John Hunter, brother of William Hunter whose name graces the Hunterian Museum in Glasgow, coupled with the story of Jan van Rymsdyk, the artist who recorded John’s dissection procedures and the one who reveals the intricacies of the human body and documents the mystery of pregnancy. John’s teaching collection is the basis of the Royal College of Surgeons’s Hunterian Museum in London, a reflection of his rivalry with and eventual estrangement from his brother.
The thing that caught my attention in this segment of the story was the narrator’s struggle with pregnancy and then motherhood, the detachment she felt and the instinctive response of her maternal body to the needs of her child. She doesn’t quite name it as postnatal depression, but the anxiety she feels about not being up to the job, not feeling anything for the child except a fear of touching her, not feeling the joy she had been promised, sounds like postnatal depression to me.
The change in her relationship with her partner’s mother also interested me. I remember my sister-in-law telling me, after my mum had died, how she felt that our mother-in-law, shared through being married to her sons, felt like a second mother to her, especially after the loss of her own mum. Greengrass describes a change that happens between women once a pregnancy binds them closer together. It made me wonder about my sister-in-law’s relationship with our mother-in-law, and how it’s necessarily different to mine because she has children and I don’t. We both have good relationships with our mother-in-law, but I feel as though mine is woman to woman rather than mother to mother.
I found the ending a little odd. It had a feeling of suspense about it, even though we know the outcome of the event described. It’s the conclusion to a different event that we are waiting to hear about. Other than that, I liked the book. If it hadn’t been on the Women’s Prize for Fiction shortlist, I doubt that I would have read it. I enjoyed how the narrator tried to gain some kind of control over her fear of the unknown by immersing herself in research, focusing on people who seem to have contributed to the lessening of fear of the corporeal unknown, questioning whether the increased knowledge we now have is necessarily a good thing. This research is mostly a distraction from the things she is afraid of. It’s the kind of thing I do.