Revelation is by definition isolate – Jessie Greengrass’ Sight

I have been reading Jessie Greengrass’ first novel Sight over the last week. As should come as no surprise to anyone who has heard me talk about Greengrass in the last couple of years, I thought it was fantastic. Strange though it is to say about a book that is in large part about the difficulty of ever knowing others (or ourselves, clearly), Sight made me feel more than anything I have read for a long time that the author was writing just for me. I wasn’t surprised to find out that Greengrass’ background is in analytic philosophy. At a reading in Islington she told us that she was attracted to the intellectual satisfaction of the subject but didn’t find it a very useful way of engaging with the world, which reflects my view of maths as a primarily aesthetic pursuit.

The narrator of Sight is a young woman on her second pregnancy. The main thread of the book focuses on her remembering the difficulties she had deciding to become a mother for the first time: the time spent reflecting on her grief at the passing of her own mother and recalling her lonely childhood with its complicated relationships between daughter, mother and grandmother. Greengrass weaves into these remembrances the lives of figures from history: Wilhelm Röntgen, discoverer of x-rays; Anna Freud, youngest daughter of Sigmund and executor of his intellectual estate; the scientists and surgeons William and John Hunter and the artist Jan van Rymsdyk who drew their explorations of the body. These accounts are presented to us by the narrator as subjects she reads on in the Wellcome library, topics that catch her fancy. They do not inform the narrative in any way but act as prolonged metaphors for the narrator’s preoccupations: how to see what is inside ourselves, how we can try to know each other but must accept separation, even when the other is our child, a literal part of our flesh.

These are things that preoccupy me too (although not the parental aspect yet), as they must preoccupy us all, but Greengrass’ decision to approach these themes by the drawing together of scholarly flotsam was what really made me feel Sight was written for me. My mind is not well adapted to systematic thought; I prefer to find pockets of interest to tuck into before moving on. Although I wouldn’t have guessed it in advance, I was completely unsurprised at the reading I attended to find Greengrass being interviewed by John Mitchinson, head of research at Q.I. (and co-host of the Backlisted podcast)

It’s not just that our interests and concerns are similar; the thrill of recognition I get from Greengrass’ writing comes just as often from a shared aesthetic sensibility. When I picked up her short story collection An Account of the Decline of the Great Auk, According to One Who Saw It in the LRB bookshop it was entirely because of the auk. At the reading she said that somebody joked to her that she is only interested in miserable people on blasted islands in Northern seas. Well, ditto. Sight, too, is full of the kind of imagery I like—large quiet houses, rooms in the attic, floorboards and rugs, reading rooms; private laboratories, brass instruments, exotic chemicals and all the other trappings of 19th century science; flesh, bone, frigid air, and the hard frosted ground.

But I worry I am selling Sight short by setting an impossible standard: just be me and you will love this book. You don’t need to be me—even if the subject matter doesn’t excite you, the line-by-line writing is superb. Greengrass’ sentences are beautifully polished and philosophically precise without the baggage of philosophical literalism:

I want only what I think we all must want: to come of as better than I ought, more generous, more sure – kinder than I know myself to be; but I want also to be known, to be counted and to be excused. I can’t have both. The thought of it makes me surly and resentful and when the baby knees me in the ribs and I snap at it through the intermediary layers of my flesh; and later, guilty, I hold my daughter close and sing to her as though I might with such tenderness obliterate her recollection of all the times I haven’t come quite up to scratch.

Auk won Greengrass the Edge Hill Short Story prize and a Somerset Maugham award; Sight is one of the six books on the Women’s Prize for fiction announced this Monday. I hope it brings her the audience she richly deserves.

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© Tom Harris 2015–2018.

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