Sight is narrated by a nameless young woman who, pregnant with her second child, meditates on her mother’s death and its aftermath, her relationship with her psychoanalyst grandmother, and how difficult it was to decide to have her first baby. The narrative brushes back and forth in time, bringing unexpected connections to the surface. One section details the period after her mother’s death when she would spend days and days reading aimlessly about science and history, seeking 'a way to understand myself by analogy, a pattern recognised in other lives which might be drawn across my own to give it shape and, given shape, to give it impetus, direction'. She would page through medical textbooks, looking at images of 'bodies dissected or described', reading case files and contemplating 'all the many ways there are to see inside ourselves and still I feel that, correctly understood, they might constitute a key – ' ... By using words like ruminative or meditative to describe the book, I am not implying it is messy or haphazard. On the contrary, the writing is poised – but as if on the edge of a precipice. Hovering between the novel and the essay, unfolding through long, languorous sentences, Sight builds meaning through juxtaposition, through surprising mirrorings and parallels; the narrator even keeps a bulletin board where she places certain photographic talismans that recur across the narrative.
Some serious novels fling open their doors and usher the reader towards rich and transporting pleasures. Others demand more investment and toil. Sight, Jessie Greengrass’s debut novel, falls into this latter category ... Sight is a bookish young woman’s exploration of her shifting sense of self as it is funnelled into motherhood. We follow the first-person narrator from her early twenties when she loses her own mother, through meeting her partner, agonising over whether to have a baby with him, then having the baby ... Her heartfelt self-examination at every stage is broken up by accounts of historical figures that resonate with her preoccupations. We learn, for instance, about the 19th-century physicist Wilhelm Röntgen, the inventor of the x-ray machine; and about the life and work of the 18th-century surgeon John Hunter, whose collection of anatomical curiosities the narrator visits at the Hunterian Museum in the Royal College of Surgeons ... The poise, intelligence and serious intent of Sight will be lauded, and rightly so. I would not be surprised to see it on heavyweight prize lists. It might, at this point, seem superficial or even petulant to ask: 'But is it enjoyable?' If you need to pose such questions (let alone have answers to them), then perhaps this is not the book for you.
Comic books used to advertise mail-order x-ray spectacles, the main use of which, at least as indicated in the accompanying drawings, was to see through women’s clothing. I am pretty sure they didn’t work. The anonymous narrator of Jessie Greengrass’s first novel — a literary and uncomic novel if there ever was one — is more ambitiously interested in seeing into people’s souls. Her conclusion is, I think, that it cannot be done, and were it to be possible it would be as much an act of violence as a gift ... The narrator speaks with empathy, having had a terrifying shrink of a grandmother — Doctor K — who analysed her over breakfast. Granny is not the only problematic family member. Her father deserts. Her mother’s early death does not warm up their cold relations ... Each is refracted through the narrator’s exhaustive unhappiness, expressed in philosophically turned sentences that can last more than 100 words and over paragraphs that plough through two and a half pages ... Take an x-ray of Sight and the scan would reveal something resembling the contents of a tin of cassoulet: good things floating in a thick and indistinct sauce; largely unappetising.
In a culture that downplays and refuses to listen to women’s pain, Sight (Hogarth) finds a way to extract our attention ... Though in many senses Greengrass’s novel joins a host of recent books on motherhood...its scope moves beyond what it means to have a child to what it means to be a female person observed, studied, probed. That such probing turns female bodies into inert curiosities makes the live, lithe complaints of Greengrass’s narrator into a kind of resistance ... Greengrass makes us see this through the eyes of a woman who is deliberate as she can be about whether to conceive ... Greengrass’s sentences parade arresting interpolations amid ornate descriptions, the oddly inserted hesitancies and pauses giving each phrase a kind of metallic gleam as of interlocked tubes ... Despite the narrator’s crushed thoughtfulness, the redemption is all in the remarkable beauty and gravity of the prose. This is a quiet and authentic resistance.
There’s a certain sort of literary novel in which not much happens. Sight is such a book. In the opening sentence, marooned in the perpetual present by its lack of a main verb, Greengrass’s unnamed narrator tells us: 'The start of another summer, the weather uncertain but no longer sharply edged, and I am pregnant again.' As far as the foreground of the novel goes, that’s about it: the narrator is on her second pregnancy, and at the end of the novel she will give birth ... We learn that the narrator has a young daughter, also unnamed, and a partner called Johannes who doesn’t say much. The occasion of her pregnancy causes her to ruminate on her relationship with her late mother and her psychoanalyst grandmother (“Doctor K”), on her first pregnancy, and on a number of moments in the history of science and art ... a style that’s brittly intolerant of unseriousness...I don’t want to be actively unkind. Her protagonist’s fug of self-absorption and self-consciousness may be rebarbative to the reader — but depression (of which this seems to be in part a study) isn’t cuddly, and grown-up novels don’t have to have 'relatable' protagonists, particularly when they’re about protagonists who struggle to relate ... I read this nevertheless as work towards something freer and more thoroughly rooted in the world. If she really stopped putting her mind to it, in other words, she’d be a much more compelling novelist.
Jessie Greengrass' Sight is one of those books that critics rave about, yet many readers wonder why. Here's why: Shimmering sentences and long paragraphs that unspool like yellow brick roads, winding toward emerald cities of elusive, hard-to-express insights ... Yet as much as I admire Greengrass' mental and verbal felicity, I also understand that her book is unlikely to appeal to readers looking for entertaining, character-driven plots ... The book, written in a fragmentary style that suggests the recurrence of a jittery mind's preoccupations, lurches around in time, though it's more tightly constructed than it first appears ... Readers willing to give themselves over to Greengrass' penetrating vision will surely expand theirs.
A woman, pregnant with her second child, gazes out a window at her firstborn, a little girl, playing in the garden, and contemplates the deep sense of loss that accompanies her daughter's growth...juxtaposed against the woman’s meditation on motherhood is her loss of her own mother, some years before, when the narrator was 21 and 'at that turning spot between adolescence and adulthood,' a death she continues to mourn and mull as the 'defining event in [her] life,' fracturing it in two ... Unflinchingly focused on life and death, love and loss, this book is not light reading. And while it has been labeled a novel, it is less a story—with a single dramatic arc and resolution—than it is a densely packed collection of clearly articulated insights on the struggle to bridge the gaps between ourselves and those to whom we yearn to be close, our efforts to define and take full measure of ourselves. It is novel as excavation ... Greengrass digs deep below the surface to explore the human condition and presents the reader with unearthed truths to ponder and pocket.