Sight is the debut novel from British author Jessie Greengrass and was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, which was won recently by Kamila Shamsie. This was the first novel I have read from this year’s Women’s Prize shortlist, and the one which appealed most strongly to my fellow book club members and I. We love the Women’s Prize and always try to get through a couple on the shortlist. We are all mothers, spend way too much time talking about our kids and so the blurb, about one woman’s journey to parenthood, spoke directly to us.
It is a very curious book. I had to keep reminding myself that it’s a novel as we become so deeply embedded in the internal world of the unnamed first person narrator that it feels as if it is an autobiography.
We know very little of the narrator, except that she is a young woman of indeterminate age, though probably in her early thirties. Her partner is Johannes, whom she meets shortly after the death of her mother. The book begins with her account of her mother’s decline and death and the time she spent caring for her. It is clearly a traumatic time for her and she struggles with all the challenges it represents – emotional, physical and administrative. It is an account of what it is like to be a daughter and an only child and to lose your only parent, your only link with your birth, with your early life and with that part of your life of which you have no memory.
She seems to drift into the relationship with Johannes at a time when she is emotionally vulnerable. He seems to offer her stability and comfort. The issue of having a child is clearly something that looms large in their relationship and eventually she agrees, but she remains unsure about the wisdom of this step.
This is not a story. It is an internal monologue, an account of one woman’s ambivalence about having a child. In fact she seems very ambivalent about all her close relationships – with her mother, with Johannes and with the only other significant character in the book, her late grandmother, a psychotherapist who lived alone and practised in a large house in Hampstead, and with whom she spent a few weeks each summer as a child. I suppose this ambivalence is present because we are getting the narrator’s unfettered, unmediated thoughts, but I found it confusing to marry this with any notion of love. For me, love was missing from the book. I understand well that for many women, it is not easy to bond with the foetus they carry, even the baby they give birth to. I can also accept relationships with a parent can be fraught and complex, even where there is familial love on both sides. Our narrator is deeply moved by the suffering of her mother in the final stages of her life; the actions she takes, the things she tells us about, sleeping beside her in the hospice, reading to her, suggest deep love, but she does not seem to me to express it. And when she writes about her grief and her loss, it is more a loss of a role, or a relation, rather than a person. There is something very cold about her feelings, which are captured in the following quote:
“Then I was faced with the problem of what to do with all my mother’s things. I felt that I was expected, somehow, to keep them, to make myself curator, but the thought of storing this detritus of an ended lifetime, of dragging it behind me like a deadened limb, turning myself into little more than a conduit for memory, was horrifying; and so in the end I gave away what I could to anyone who wanted it and hired a skip for the weekend to deal with the rest.”
What I found most difficult was that there seemed to be little real love in her relationship with Johannes. This was the man she chose to be the father of her child and although she finds great comfort in their easy companionship, their shared interests and the great care he shows for her, there is also at times a kind of contempt.
Perhaps my reading of it is too simplistic or too literal – perhaps if my internal thoughts were this closely mapped they would also reveal ambivalences in my feelings for the people I love most in the world. Our thoughts are closed to everyone but ourselves, and even to ourselves sometimes.
This is not a linear narrative – it jumps back and forth from her childhood, to the present, the antenatal appointments, to her mother’s death. In that sense it bears similarities to a ‘stream of consciousness’ style. Woven through it are accounts of three scientific figures – Rontgen and his discovery of the X-ray, Sigmund Freud and his psychoanalytic relationship with his daughter Anna, and John Hunter and the development of early surgery in the 18th century.
What I liked about this book was the remarkable writing, the intensity of the observation, particularly of her relationship with her own young daughter:
“When my daughter throws her arms with thoughtless grace around my neck, I respond with an agonising gratitude that I must hide from her in case, feeling the heft of it, she might become encumbered and not do that she was born for, which is to go away from me.”
There is profound insight in this book, not necessarily to the human condition – there was much here that I could not empathise with – but I mean in terms of the self-awareness. The deep introspection has given her a powerful knowledge of her own nature, of the events that have shaped her existence and of the impact of her relationships upon her.
This is a long review for a book in which very little happens! It was not an easy read and it sometimes frustrated me. It’s an extraordinary achievement for a first novel and offers a fresh approach to much-explored themes, even if at times it feels rather dislocated.
Recommended if you prefer psychology to plot.
If you have read Sight, what did you make of it, and how does it compare to the other novels on the Women’s Prize shortlist?
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