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Sight: SHORTLISTED FOR THE WOMEN'S PRIZE FOR FICTION 2018 Hardcover – 22 Feb. 2018
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Precise and moving . . . The pages on the mother's decline are a masterclass in wrenching, pitiless truth . . . the potted stories of Röntgen, Freud and Hunter form a fluid, richly associative historic narrative of investigation into the body and the mind, about seeking constantly to expand the borders of what we can see (Daily Telegraph ****)
An exceptionally accomplished debut (Observer)
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 (Sunday Times)
Exceptional . . . The prose is unsentimental, measured, breathtaking in its elegance . . . remarkably moving (The Spectator)
This is a first novel - an original one by a writer who clearly has considerable gifts and a serious, nuanced approach to individual psychology and intellectual history (Financial Times)
Greengrass's fiercely cerebral despatch from one of life's most extraordinary rites of passage impresses linguistically, intellectually and emotionally (Mail on Sunday)
A slight and wondrous tale (New Statesman)
A slow burning, beautifully written debut . . . accomplished and melancholic (Irish Times)
Remarkable and affecting (Literary Review)
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Relating the plot is pointless: a pregnant woman analyses herself, her reasons for wanting a second child, her reasons for wanting a first child, her inadequacies, her relationships with her own mother and psychoanalytical grandmother. She intersperses these reflections with other discoveries enabling insights into human beings. Röntgen, and the very first X-Ray of his wife's hand. He could see inside.
It's hugely introspective and at the same time inclusive, allowing the reader to develop thoughts and wander off on personal tangets. This book took far longer to read than the page count demanded.
The language arcs and swoops with such grace to leave one awed or occasionally confused.
'Revelation pended, the veil between myself and understanding was in a constant state of almost-rending, and I thought I could see shadows through it, the outlines of an as-yet uncomprehended truth, until all at once the mania crested and what came out of it, in place of elucidation, was agony, my head pinned in a vice, my body hanging limp below it, a disarticulated sack of bones and blood around which my limbs curled, stiff and liable to snap.'
Her analyses of other human-inspectors - Freud, Thompson, Röntgen - provides a wider perspective to this unnamed introvert as ballast to this vacillating between opinions, time and personal philosophy.
Stream-of-consciousness is a term often over-used and patronised, but here Greengrass uses it to best effect. Self-awareness is the only way to X-Ray the mind.
Reflective, full of long, lyrical sentences and with some perceptive observations about pregnancy, about motherhood and about how much do we really know about ourselves, Jessie Greengrass’s novel is an original, intelligent and beautifully written one and one that pulled me from the very first pages. However, if you are looking for a conventional, linear story and one with a proper plot, then this is most probably not what you are looking for, but if you enjoy unusual stories which focus more on language and intellect than plot, then this could work well for you.
So what went wrong? I think for me the narrator became a little tiresome, partly because they were so self-obsessed and partly because I couldn't understand her interest in the development of knowledge (or Sight) in the historical sections when she had such a negative view of such progress. She says things like 'the price of sight is wonder's diminishment' and 'there is nothing more horrible than a world elucidated'. No scientist would agree with her! If it isn't too daft to recommend a book to a fictional character I'd like to give her Unweaving the Rainbow by Richard Dawkins!
Top international reviews
The novel, though, didn’t work for me at all. Yes, I can admire the prose. It is truly stunning at times. I also genuinely enjoyed and was engrossed in the historical tangents, but Greengrass’ ruminations on pregnancy, on death, on therapy, on the bond between a mother and a daughter, never made much of an impression. Maybe it’s because I’m a bloke. I note that Mike McCormack’s Solar Bones, a book I adored, is also meditative in structure, expressed as a single sentence, but I found the male concerns of McCormack’s protagonist far more engaging. It also might be that Greengrass maintains this single tone throughout the novel. Her character is in a permanent state of doubt, guilt and worry, only broken up by those magnificent tangents into the past. There’s no humour here. No joy. No sense that life is anything more than a series of paralysing choices. I don’t expect a laugh a minute, but even the dourest of reflections has a tinge of black humour. I only finished Sight because I wanted to know more about Röntgen, Freud and Hunter. On those topics her character writes with a great deal of passion and intellectual curiosity, and yet none of that is present when she meditates about her own life.
As I say above, I’m sure to be a minority view about this novel. The prose is undoubtedly gorgeous., and if you’re patient (I wasn’t) there’s ample opportunity to admire Greengrass’ use of language. For me, though, I wish Greengrass had written about the history of X-Rays or the autopsies, dissections and vivisections of the 18th Century because that’s some fascinating shit right there.
In the end, “Sight” appealed to me less, even though Greengrass produced more breathtaking language (e.g., “She was at birth a half-size model of herself, her blueish skin stretched tight across her skull, the line of her vertebrae showing along her back like threaded pearls beneath a cotton sheet”) and gave her narrator the same life path Heti rejected and I chose. (Thanks to Greengrass’s own parenthood, we get vivid descriptions of what mothering is actually like—“I hold my daughter close and sing to her as though I might with such tendernesses obliterate her recollection of all the times I haven’t come quite up to scratch”—rather than Heti’s necessarily less precise imaginings of what it would mean: “On the one hand, the joy of children. On the other hand, the misery of them.”)
Perhaps “Sight” spoke to me less because of this greater specificity, rather than in spite of it. For example, the disconnect could owe to my lack of experience with the grief she writes so stirringly about (“[M]y mother had died when I was in my early twenties, her death so desolating that for months afterwards I had been unable to recognise my unhappiness, mistaking the joyless pall I wore for adulthood’s final arrival: the understanding, come at last, that the world was nothing but what it appeared to be, a hard surface in a cold light” and “I could think only of my own mother, of how her death had seemed like a sudden event slowed down, a single shocking moment that went on for months”). But it could also be that Greengrass’s language is like the fanciest of cakes, less palatable for all its splendor, just a little too much (e.g., “All morning, caught up in the business of appointments, I had forgotten to feel sick, but now it returned, the constant queasy ostinato over which rose exhaustion’s disharmonious cadence, a progression paused before the point of resolution, aching forwards”). I found my eyes frequently glazing over, even occasionally rolling.
That said, there is much in “Sight” to love. As a parent, in particular, the following passages appealed:
“Home from the hospital ... we began to count again, not down this time but up, back through days and weeks to months, and still that joy I had been promised didn’t come.”
“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 what she was born for, which is to go away from me.”
“Each evening, after our daughter is asleep, surrounded by the chaos made from our once-ordered lives, Johannes and I sit together for half an hour and let our thoughts unwind in silence or in fractured sentences, this ritual proximity an attempt to touch one another across a widening space of tiredness and habit, and although we do not confess, are neither priests nor penitents, still it is a kind of undressing and we are better for it.”
“[T]he complicated interplay between our children and ourselves, the ways we twine about one another, using them as mirrors to our flaws, their reflective plasticity showing us how we must first learn that which we would like to teach: honesty, patience, the capacity to put another first ....”
“I will wonder if this is how it will always be, now, this longing to be elsewhere—the wish when I am with my daughter that I might step apart from her, and when I am apart this anxious echoing, the worry that the world might prove unsound, a counting down to her return …. I wonder what it says about me that I seem to feel love only in absence—that, present, I recognise only irritation, a list of inconveniences, the daily round of washing and child teas, the mundanity of looking after, and beyond this the recollection of what went before and how nice it was to be free ….”
“Johannes was at home, his own life a thread less frayed than mine, his hours contiguous while mine drifted apart.”
Oftentimes, Greengrass’s facility with metaphor left me in awe:
“[O]ne of those long, flat beaches that separate the marshes of East Anglia from the uncompromising sea, places that Johannes and I go to sometimes, early in the autumn when the ground is warm but the air has a chill to it and when, in the late afternoons, the moon hangs like its own ghost in the sky and the reed-beds cast long shadows and everything is dusty, gold, and both of us are pierced, slightly and not unpleasantly, with a nostalgia for something that we have never seen but know, instinctively, that we have lost.”
“She had bought the house, dilapidated then, the year that she turned thirty, shortly after qualifying as a psychoanalyst, and since then she had slowly reworked it, fitting its rooms around herself, until she seemed to sit within it like a stone inside its setting.”
“This diary keeping was, she said, not strictly necessary to the task of self-analysis but it was a methodology which she found useful, a way of holding the mind to task, like the use of a rosary in prayer.”
And yet, I never cared what happened to Greengrass's narrator or her family members, despite our common ground. I want to love the language in which a story is wrapped, but I want to love the story too.
[This text originally appeared on Ready Mommy's Book Reviews.]
''𝙄 𝙬𝙖𝙣𝙩𝙚𝙙 𝙖 𝙘𝙝𝙞𝙡𝙙 𝙛𝙞𝙚𝙧𝙘𝙚𝙡𝙮 𝙗𝙪𝙩 𝙘𝙤𝙪𝙡𝙙 𝙣𝙤𝙩 𝙞𝙢𝙖𝙜𝙞𝙣𝙚 𝙢𝙮𝙨𝙚𝙡𝙛 𝙥𝙧𝙚𝙜𝙣𝙖𝙣𝙩, 𝙤𝙧 𝙖 𝙢𝙤𝙩𝙝𝙚𝙧... 𝙄 𝙬𝙖𝙨 𝙩𝙚𝙧𝙧𝙞𝙛𝙞𝙚𝙙 𝙤𝙛 𝙩𝙝𝙚 𝙞𝙧𝙧𝙚𝙫𝙤𝙘𝙖𝙗𝙞𝙡𝙞𝙩𝙮 𝙤𝙛 𝙗𝙞𝙧𝙩𝙝 𝙖𝙣𝙙 𝙬𝙝𝙖𝙩 𝙘𝙖𝙢𝙚 𝙖𝙛𝙩𝙚𝙧 𝙞𝙩, 𝙝𝙤𝙬 𝙩𝙝𝙚 𝙧𝙖𝙞𝙨𝙞𝙣𝙜 𝙤𝙛 𝙖 𝙘𝙝𝙞𝙡𝙙, 𝙩𝙝𝙖𝙩 𝙪𝙣𝙙𝙪𝙘𝙠𝙖𝙗𝙡𝙚 𝙧𝙚𝙨𝙥𝙤𝙣𝙨𝙞𝙗𝙞𝙡𝙞𝙩𝙮, 𝙢𝙞𝙜𝙝𝙩 𝙩𝙪𝙧𝙣 𝙚𝙖𝙘𝙝 𝙤𝙛 𝙢𝙮 𝙖𝙘𝙩𝙞𝙤𝙣𝙨 𝙞𝙣𝙩𝙤 𝙬𝙚𝙞𝙜𝙝𝙩𝙚𝙙 𝙖𝙘𝙘𝙞𝙙𝙚𝙣𝙩𝙨, 𝙢𝙤𝙪𝙡𝙙𝙞𝙣𝙜 𝙖𝙣𝙤𝙩𝙝𝙚𝙧 𝙡𝙞𝙛𝙚 𝙬𝙞𝙩𝙝𝙤𝙪𝙩 𝙞𝙣𝙩𝙚𝙣𝙩𝙞𝙤𝙣 𝙞𝙣𝙩𝙤 𝙪𝙣𝙥𝙧𝙤𝙥𝙞𝙩𝙞𝙤𝙪𝙨 𝙨𝙝𝙖𝙥𝙚𝙨.”
The narration took the reader back and forth to the relationship with her sick mother, often cross at the aftereffects of her death and her relationship with her grandmother, Dr. K. Nearly all relationships in her life, her father, mother, the father of her children, and her grandmother had some measure of complexity to it.
Sight by Greengrass enthralled the reader solely through her elegant way of expressing herself.
Reader be warned: there's very few paragraphs in this book. There's almost no dialogue, and no quotation marks. It's just exchanges, memories, ideas, then all the history I mentioned above.
My only issue with this book was that although it's brief, the reflective tone is just too much by the end. The unnamed narrator spends the entire book debating whether or not she should have a child, and by the time she does, the reader couldn't care less. In fact, I think the length of the book lessens what came before it. And the the last scientific/historical part that's woven into the narrative (the bit about anatomy) isn't nearly as compelling as the bits about the Xray and Sigmund Freud, so that pulls down the end of the book, as well.
It's a very strange and beautiful book. But definitely not a traditional novel in any sense of the word. It's sort of like if a fictional character wrote a stream-of-sonscious long-form poem/memoir, with a bit of history about scientific discoveries mixed in. That's the best way I can describe it.
Sight, itself is a meditation on mothering, parenting, connecting and separating within the time line of an experienced pregnancy with interruptions for the history of its heroine's relations with her mother and maternal grandmother, and, in addition a discussion of the relationship of Sigmund Freud and his daughter Anna and a bit of the history of early surgery and studies of anatomy.
I can understand why some could find this short book too long but it's worth staying with for its insights about the human condition and its very beauty.
The themes sounded interesting to me and the novel received a lot of praise from critics so I was hopeful. I did like the historical excerpts of the stories of scientific discoveries and how they are tied back to the main novel. But other than that, I just don’t find this book interesting.
In many places, it is brilliant. Holding the story together is an unnamed first person narrator who has undergone her mother’s death and is contemplating having a first and then a second baby. Her story is interspersed with three vignettes from the medical world: Wilhelm Rontgen who invented the x-ray, Freud and his daughter Anna, and finally, John Hunter, an 18th century surgeon and anatomist of pregnant bodies.
These three interwoven stories weren’t chosen by accident. Jessie Greenglass’ own sights are fixed on “the sense of yearning outwards into darkness, the prayer for understanding that is nothing but a silent thought in a vast and vaulted space.” All three of the men she chooses brought light out of darkness – literally or figuratively. The fact that the narrator is striving to dig in the dark folds of the mind and finding it to be precarious, uncertain and impossible to compete weaves the book together.
What the author does so well is to combine the sense of detachment with intimately-felt insights into the roles of being a daughter, mother, and human being. Shimmering, perfectly-wrought long paragraphs, many of which take up an entire page and more combined with a fractional style demand complete attention. I can see why it’s not for everyone; in full disclosure, I picked it up twice and put it down before connecting with it this time. But the insights are truly exceptional and the structure is fascinating.
When I started the book, though, I realized quickly that this was not going to be an easy read. Greengrass is a gifted writer, and I can well understand how the novel has garnered such rave reviews and accolades. But I can also understand the numerous reviews here where people said they could not finish the book. The pace of action is very, very slow, and there is almost no dialogue to speak of (I didn't keep count, but it's possible that the number of lines of dialogue doesn't exceed the mid double figures.) Most of the book, instead, is devoted to long introspective memories of the protagonist, interspersed with historical descriptions of Roentgen and Freud.
I usually like to include one or more quotes from a book in my reviews, to give prospective readers an idea of the author's writing style. This is very difficult to do in this case, as Greengrass routinely writes sentences that are half a page long, with loping clauses and sub-clauses that unwind slowly to make their point. That is why I encourage you to read the sample; if you like what you see, you will find this to be a sublime novel, shimmering with beautiful, carefully crafted prose. I found myself dog-earing passages I found particularly compelling every few pages. Take, for example, this one (portion of a) sentence: "I wonder what is says about me that I seem to feel love only in absence -- that, present, I recognize only irritation, a list of inconveniences, the daily round of washing and child teas, the mundanity of looking after, and beyond this the recollection of what went before and how nice it was to be free..." The protagonist in this novel is deeply conflicted regarding whether to have a second child, and by the time you are 2/3 through the book, you are starting to feel very, very sorry for her exceedingly patient and loving husband.
I ended up feeling deeply conflicted myself on how to rate the book. On the one hand, I had an intellectual appreciation for the sophistication and craft of this writing. It probably does deserve to make the short lists of literary prizes. On the other hand, I found myself frustrated with the slow pace of the novel and the indecisiveness of the main character. Beautiful insights abound, but it is not exactly a romp of a read.
The narrator, a woman, has no name, her issue as we meet her is her second pregnancy. What part does she have in the universe to bring a new life into the world? This rumination plays a large part in the back and forth of time where we find the narrator. Why is it we don’t know anything for sure, and that we fear that which we can’t see. Those things, however, are the reasons for living. It is the death of her mother that brings much of the rumination.
I had mixed feelings about this novel. I enjoyed the well written prose, but could not get into the philosophy and the psychoanalysis Of life that the narrator seems to enjoy. We all have questions about the whys and wherefore of our lives, but not to this degree. It is the writing that soars and makes a difference in this book.
Recommended. prisrob 03-01-19
About a woman who grew up without love and would probably continue that cycle with her own children. How sad.
I enjoyed the bits of medical history in the novel. I liked this better than the character's own experiences. Although I have been through many of these life events, I found it difficult to relate to her. She remained at arms length and seemed otherwise silent and cold.
Jessie Greengrass writes in long sentences. Extraordinarily long sentences. I had to approach reading this novel as though it were written in a stream of consciousness, which is difficult to do because this implies that there is forward movement. The novel itself was a slow crawl through the main character's memory.
It was a slow read for only 200 pages. It seems like a book I’m supposed to like, but actually don’t. I suspect it’s too intellectual for me. I found it interesting but I was not drawn into it. Three stars.
An unnamed narrator is expecting her second child and spends a great deal of time obsessing about everything: her first born growing up and away from her, her mother's death when she 20, the father who left her, a less than sensitive psychoanalyst grandmother and more.
I found the stream of consciousness writing style was somewhat off putting; the thoughts jump from one worried thought to another. There are lots of heavy themes in this short novel as well. Sorry I just can't recommend this one, it's depressing.