Sight by Jessie Greengrass

John Murray, February 2018, 193 pp

John Murray, February 2018, 193 pp

The overarching theme in Jessie Greengrass’s debut novel Sight is by no means unique, as it joins the ranks of other recent fictional or semi-fictional accounts on motherhood. I instantly recall names such as Sheila Heti’s novel Motherhood from May, and Chris Power’s short story collection Mothers from February. Yet, dubbing Sight as any sort of a mothers-only book is a serious undervaluation of what is at offer here: an unusually deep study of parenthood, or life in general, told from the perspective of a married young woman, mother of one, soon of two.

Coming from a background in philosophy, it is no surprise that Greengrass is prone to nominalize in her sentences. Simple ideas and actions turn into much heavier and complex phrases when verbs are converted into nouns, but it also has its charm, and it’s not far at all from the way that many of us, or at least me, often think. I believe that the sort of Greengrassian sentences that we get here reflect an introverted mind, an academic type of a person somewhat in distress. I don’t think there is any pretentiousness to it at all, unless by “pretentious” one means an artistic person. Greengrass is a perceptive and deep observer of human nature, one who finds incredibly beautiful and realistic ways to express the everyday life in words. The novel is a goldmine of quote-worthy passages, the sort of deep pondering you find as asides in George Eliot, so let us look at, say, page one:

The weight of her body when I lift her takes me by surprise, its unfamiliarity a reiteration of the distance between us. She used to clamber over me, her legs around my waist, her arms around my neck, as though I were furniture or an extension of herself, unthought-of or intimately known. Now she stands apart and I must reach for her, on each occasion a little further until it seems her progress towards adulthood is a kind of disappearing and that I know her less and less the more that she becomes herself. This is how things ought to be, her going away while I remain, but still I think that if I could then I might reach across to where she stands, outlined against the violent yellow mass of a forsythia bush, and pull her back to me, to keep her always in my sight so that she might be nothing more than the sum of what I know of her.

Language, at least prose, is rarely as goosebumps-inducing as it is here, so profound and emotive simultaneously. What is more, at least half of Sight is written in this manner, in such verbalizations of the everyday that benefit from a slow reading. The other half consists of interspersed vignettes of historic persons that have somehow dealt with questions of sight or parenthood. Respectively, these are Wilhelm Röntgen and his discovery of the X-ray, Sigmund (and Anna) Freud and the development of psychoanalysis, and John Hunter’s surgery along with Jan van Rymsdyk’s paintings of wombs. All these resonate to the narrator as she studies them in the Wellcome Library in London, helping her to reflect on her own life situation, which comprises, for example, the inevitable separation from her daughter, the married life with her husband Johannes, and the impending birth of the second baby.

The peculiar way that Greengrass handles dialogue, or the lack of it, must be mentioned here. Speech is rarely reproduced on the page. It emerges only in brief instances, as if for the most part we are underwater with the narrator, and occasionally come to the surface, to hear the lucid day-to-day language, and then, in the same sentence, we dive into the water again. For example, when the narrator finds out she is pregnant again, she calls a doctor: “The next morning I rang the doctor’s surgery but / –Can you tell me the reason for your appointment? / found myself unable to say the words.” At the time of the appointment:

There would be mornings, soon, when I would lie on the bathroom floor, too tired to move except when another swell of nausea came and forced me up over the toilet bowl to retch emptily; and still, then, I wouldn’t know whether this was within the parameters of the ordinary and anyway what could be done about it but endure. The doctor shrugged a little and turned away:
–If you have any pain or bleeding go to A & E,
and so began the slow dividing up of time: two thirds of a year split into months, and months split into weeks and days, each one counted off as though it were a sentence to be passed and at the end of it recalibration, a return to an old life with new circumstances like a house that has been gutted and rebuilt.

The novel is ultimately focused on the narrator and her thought patterns, and has thereby gained in some circles the reputation of a “navel-gazing” novel. Even its status as a novel has been questioned, as it resembles a personal account, a memoir, without plot development or character arc. But it all makes me wonder why such restrictions should be expected of and imposed on novels. (Additionally, such business smells too much of high school English classes). More importantly, Sight is an insightful and moving contemplation on life, something from which, I believe, readers may find something for their own lives. This quality of Sight, alone, makes it stand above anything that, for instance, E. M. Forster might have said about what is required of novels in Aspects of the Novel, his esteemed classic on the subject. Despite some oversights in spellchecking (which are, hopefully, edited out in future editions), Sight is among the best books of the year so far, surely to be enjoyed by those who like Garth Greenwell’s What Belongs to You from a few years back, a story of similar sensibility and acuity.