A fruitful way to view Jessie Greengrass's recent novel Sight might be as an exploration of the various discourses of 'explanation' humans have deployed through the centuries, from science and medicine to psychoanalysis and film (though the last is barely touched upon). The volume feels part novel, part essay, part memoir, part medical/academic paper; there is an appendix, an index, suggestions for further reading. It grew out of hours spent reading at the Wellcome library, we are told in 'Further Reading', a place which itself, for those who have visited it will know, seems to fuse various disciplines, discourses and spaces. As such, Greengrass's debut is on trend for the direction literary fiction is currently still moving in and which seems to have been set in motion by the likes of W. G. Sebald about thirty years ago. In fact, Sight's ornateness, its essayistic texture, its discursive, meditative, elegiac nature and its preoccupation with the past, loss and understanding would have seemed startlingly original to me – almost revelatory to me - if I had not already read Sebald (which Greengass thankfully credits as an influence); one particularly Sebaldian image, which appears in various versions, is that of a figure lost in 'space', a 'luminous bubble…cast adrift within…night'. As it is, I feel the novel is a glittering accomplishment but one rendered slightly redundant, in both formal and stylistic terms, by its near identicality to the monolithic presence that preceded it; I felt as I felt reading Will Self's Umbrella (2012): this is amazing, but what's the point? James Joyce did it ninety-four years earlier?
This reservation aside, Sight is undoubtedly the most accomplished and frequently breath-taking book I've read in recent years. It establishes Greengrass as a writer of exceptional subtlety, taste and sophistication. Her brilliance is evident on nearly every page. In the opening section, the narrator, newly pregnant, describes watching her young daughter, who has recently begun to lose 'the tumbling immediacy of toddlerhood', 'inflect…her actions with intent'; her once 'readable plasticity is gone…,' Greengrass writes, 'complexity has brought concealment'. the child's progress toward adulthood 'is a kind of disappearing…' and elicits in the narrator a wish to 'to keep her always in my sight'. (Not a word is wasted in this novel while words such as 'look', 'sight', 'insight' frequently acquire a deeper resonance, referring both to scientific leaps forwards as well as personal moments of revelation or lack). Here, the main preoccupations of the novel are set out, beautifully encapsulated in relation to one another: transparency versus opacity/concealment, sight/knowing/ understanding, versus ignorance/blindness/disappearance, all encompassed in the existential fear attendant (whether mentally articulated or not) upon motherhood. Sebald's main metaphor was transience versus permanence; Greengrass's is surface versus depth, the known versus the unknown, conveyed beautifully in images such as the infant in the womb to a photograph of the surface of Titan, largest of Saturn's moons, comprising the 'ill-formed communications of ghosts'. In a key passage that describes the protagonist's wish for her unborn daughter, Greengrass writes: if 'I thought there was a way that I could make her life better than the ordinary…less fraught with the sudden…revelation that hidden motivation brings, or with the half-rotted- through desire for what will come to haunt or hurt her – if I could give her clarity, self-knowledge, sight - …then I would'. In another such foray: 'It strikes me as extraordinary, now, that we should be so hidden from ourselves, our bodies and our minds so inaccessible…but there is a thrill to it, too;…[as,] underneath the sea…unnamed creatures float…in those vast and empty tracts of space…but the price of sight is wonder's diminishment.'
So perfectly melded are form and content in Sight that one finds it impossible to talk about one without talking about the other - a mark of what I consider to be the most brilliant works of literature and many of my favourites. Ostensibly, Sight is about a young woman's anxiety that she will not be a good mother to a second child that she cannot decide whether or not to fall pregnant with. This present narrative slips back to a period in which she nursed her own dying mother, shortly after she had finished university, and then to her childhood when she was sent to stay with her Freudian analyst grandmother. Within this present-day framework, and by means of her narrator's interests in the history of the x-ray, photographic film, anatomy, medicine and psychology Greengrass skilfully interlaces past and present human attempts to plumb their physical and mental condition. She ties the historical deviations into her narrative gracefully; in the narrator's excruciatingly difficult decision whether to have a second child (about which her seemingly endlessly patient partner is fine either way: 'Whatever you decide will be alright' he says; later he seems to take the lion's share of the care of the new baby) she finds herself watching the Lumière brothers' film instead of working, this first foray into history coming on the second page of the novel and feeling significant, appearing as it does out of nowhere and compared to the discovery of the x-ray, the second historical incident and related immediately afterwards, both representing different aspect of the same theme: 'all that had been solid grow towards transparency ….the image of a substrate world spread out across a photographic plate…to set against cinema's preservation of surface'. The 1895 screening of the cinematographic film La Pêche aux poisons rouges, in which Auguste Lumière holds his baby daughter as she fishes in a bowl for a goldfish, plausibly snags the about-to-be mother's attention, loaded as the images are with notions of parental responsibility and care. She scrutinises the father and baby daughter, thinking if she just looks hard enough she 'might understand what it would be like to be either one of them; just as, in a similarly difficult period years before, in a sentence that is deceptively light of hand, we are told that: 'To fill the space that even grief refused to occupy I had read, at first indiscriminately…and then, as I began at last to reconstruct myself, building piecemeal on the foundations of all that had been demolished by my mother's death, on Wilhelm Röntgen and the history of the x-ray.' Because these two discoveries apparently happened on the same afternoon the narrator now feels if she can only see how they fit together then perhaps she could see in her own life 'an underlying principle, or how it was that I should find myself considering motherhood when it seemed that I had barely altered from unhappy adolescence'. This is the justification for the historical forays, at least into Röntgen's (the German physicist who discovered the x-ray) life, though the Lumière narrative, which feels like it will be as central to the project as that of Röntgen, is not mentioned again.
The binary the two incidents introduce continue to be dramatized in a host of opposites, as Greengrass's surface/depth theme is laced subtly throughout: the world seems to the narrator, in the light of her mother's death as a young woman, to be merely 'a hard surface in a cold light'; whether to have another child is the 'surtext' of the protagonist's ensuing conversations with her partner in the present; phrases such as 'the hidden made manifest', 'the underlying, animating shape of things' and 'many ways to see inside ourselves' appear almost constantly. 'For months,' the narrator tells us early on, 'my purpose had been imposed by circumstance, the structures of my life externally defined so that I had been like a creature inside an exoskeleton'. In the narrator's encounter while pregnant with Clemente Susini's Anatomical Venus, whose layers of stripped back flesh and muscle are likened to the narrator's feelings of love for her partner and child 'which anchors as much as it irks so that, tight inside its lacings, I know my shape…where my edges are'; to the way she feels during her pregnancy as a result of the constant examinations and 'indignities'; to artist Jan van Rymsdyk whose eighteenth century anatomical drawings are 'the reproduction of nothing more than what was seen', the 'reproduction of the surface of things', giving sight to the new frontier of inner bodies; to the practices of Sigmund Freud, who is introduced into the narrative courtesy of the narrator's grandmother, who is a psychoanalyst and engages in a daily and metaphorical excavation of consciousness, a 'going through of attics and drawers', so that what was unconscious may be made visible - 'a thing of glass' - a way of life that the narrator portrays negatively, viewing Freud's patients with sympathy, 'opened like a nut, split to see what mechanism it was that made' them.
As I read I found that the historical forays in general, far from detracting from the personal story, actually elevated it. The parallels between the historical narratives, and between the narrator's past and present, are implicit rather than overt: the narrator's grandmother's grief at the loss of her daughter, for example, 'into a complicated life' she cannot help her with and her wonder 'what the alternative might be, and if, in fact, it might be worse', is closely juxtaposed with Freud's unhealthily close and lifelong relationship with his daughter Anna. Elsewhere the narrator describes 'becoming, in word-long increments, disconnected from the moment I inhabited' while caring for her dying mother as a young woman, being 'at the same time both of us, my mother and myself', leading to her reflection while attending to her own infant daughter years later, that she sees 'the outline of my mother's hands beneath the skin of mine'. The larger, sentence-long connective passages and metaphors linking Greengrass's historical material to her present-day protagonist are frequently ingenious in their dextrous sleight of hand: after recounting the period the narrator suffered intense headaches during which time she felt 'lost', she continues her history of Röntgen with these words: 'Bertha Röntgen was used to lost hours, to her husband's absorption in his work'. The experience of revelation Röntgen feels in the early days of his discovery is isolating, just as the experience of migraine can be; just as migraine is a revelation; just as stripping for the MRI the protagonist is about to receive in order to investigate her headaches, she feels that perhaps what is approaching is not a 'routine medical examination but…a proof at last of all that constituted me' - as the x-ray was in the early days. The narrator's grandmother, who is a Freudian psychoanalyst, has a gaze which penetrates her skin, as if to see inside her. Analysis, her grandmother tells her, affords the possibility that a person might 'become transparent to themselves', to 'live a life…directed not by the hidden motivations of a covered mind but by an elucidated self'. 'E-lucidus': 'out' and 'shine', from 'luc': light. It's all connected.
Except that the very felicity with which Greengrass draws these connections did make me wonder occasionally whether there was any real relevance between two things and this author could connect anything with anything. I also wondered what came first in this novel's genesis: the ruminating mother or Greengrass's interest in Röntgen or Lumière. It seems in places as though Greengrass is eking out her material and the long swathes of little more than past history occasionally feel like 'fillers', bulking out an otherwise meagre main story. When I read later that Greengrass researched how many words were in the shortest 'novel' (50,000 apparently) then broke that number down into a daily target of 162, the feeling I'd had made more sense. In any case, just occasionally, the connections to the x-ray (the only concrete metaphor of the book) feel weak and overlaid rather than emerging naturally from the material: of her reading (like her creator) in the Wellcome Collection, the narrator confides her hope that somewhere in those pages she peruses she might find something that makes sense of her unhappiness, 'allowing me to peel back the obscurant layers of myself and lay bare at last the solid structure underneath'. But when, on page 163, Greengrass embarks on the description of yet another historical character (John Hunter, this time, an eighteenth century anatomist), I thought: 'not another life!' - this last finally feeling like a drag, unable to summon enough interest, while the connections Greengrass draws between Hunter's life and the period in her narrator's life just after she has given birth felt superfluous and laboured.
This is a small price to pay, however, for a work that so frequently dazzles. Of course, Sight isn't for everyone. Greengrass's vocabulary (the novel is peppered with words such as: 'reliquary', 'feint', 'arcana', 'nap', 'espaliered') is that of the poet and the complexity of her sentences (such as 'sibilant invitations to returning sleep…the epigenetics of comfort', for instance) often seem to come from another time altogether. We are no longer used to such eloquence; set beside it most other writing of today seems clumsy and oafish indeed. Greengrass writes of 'having failed amongst grief's greater broil to be reapportioned'; of 'Revelation…by definition isolate, it can neither be communicated nor transferred, and trying to comprehend it we feel only the chill of our exclusion.' It's the kind of high-flown, sweeping language (it's no surprise Greengrass read philosophy at Cambridge) we don't really come across in novels anymore and while it may alienate some in its genuine grandeur, others will feel as though they have discovered a long-lost friend. It is in fact easy to overlook her skill as a novelist and get lost in the surface of the language, but Greengrass is a master not only of language but the rendering of fictional worlds and human psyches, the description of her university-age protagonist caring for her dying mother is a case in point, describing 'the anxious, empty tedium of the ends of lives' which returns the young woman to the helplessness of childhood, 'forcing into reverse that inevitable process of separation', till '[i]t began to seem…the only solution to our physical closeness was an emotional distance') – all of which has such a ring of truth to it that if it feels like a memoir rather than imaginary; or how it feels to be a mother, for instance: 'having a piece of your heart outside of yourself', 'the extent of [my child's] separation from me…the extent to which I cannot bear to be apart from her'; immediately after birth the feeling that 'my own experience…remained not the thing itself but only a picture of it, so that I was not quite yet a mother' and 'I could not say for certain that I was happy but only that the thought of things being otherwise was unbearable…' She is equally adept at conveying the minutiae of daily living that tends to numb feelings of love in long-term relationships – all of which are superbly described (perhaps not dramatized very much, but this can't be expected in a work which is not really a novel in the traditional sense but more of a monologue or meditation).
Her descriptions are sometimes almost miraculous; take the intense, knife-edge fragility in the wake of migraine, for instance: 'as though I had been reduced to almost nothing, my skin a fragile membrane parting light and liquid', or this evocation of a specific time in early autumn, encompassing a sensation of keening loss and simultaneous awakening I have felt most of my life at exactly the same time of year but never found articulated before: 'when the ground is warm but the air has a chill to it and when, in the late afternoons….everything is dusty, gold and….[we] are pierced…with a nostalgia for something that we have never seen but know, instinctively, that we have lost'. Sometimes it is as if Greengrass has penetrated to the psychology of objects themselves and the half-formed thoughts of our subconscious minds: sorting through the belongings of her dead mother, the narrator says, 'each one become through disuse little more than an imitation of itself'. There are such staggeringly compact immensities in her turns of phrase, sometimes obvious, sometimes not immediately apparent: 'the balance of power that there is in sacrifice'. Jessie Greengrass has the ability to stupefy, the perfection of her metaphors numb the mind momentarily. The narrator reads books aloud to her dying mother that her mother read to her as a child, and in doing do, the room in which she reads has 'the stillness of a pivot's turning place'. Sometimes the prose is momentous, transcendent in its ability to still the reader as only great things can, seeming to sum up the whole of human existence lived out in an apparently empty cosmos: 'this sense of yearning outwards into darkness, the prayer for understanding that is nothing but a silent thought in a vast and vaulted space'. Who cares about action, about dialogue, about 'plot' in the presence of this?
Occasionally the language feels needlessly abstract (Greengrass not quite the master Sebald was, who could attenuate out a sentence, and his readers' attention, for page upon page); a description of the narrator's partner, for instance, who feels at this moment distant to her, 'not only unreachable but unfamiliar, a singular instance of the whole he made, both precious and strange, his likeness uncatchable by anything other than himself'. At other times Greengrass's ideas are so complex they require re-reading: after seeing the foetus in her stomach for the first time the narrator recounts 'it had been as though what we looked at existed not inside my body…but in the space between us; that…had been transmuted by the act of sight from subject to object'. Just sometimes the elegiac, philosophical hot air currents of thought seem (a very little) like waffling; universes away from the reality they seek to convey. If you don't feel like devoting considerable care and attention to reading, such passages will weigh heavily or be skimmed over altogether. And occasionally the surface/depth imagery becomes too repetitive, at least for this reader, as if it were being drummed into my brain, the opposite of the recurring image of the concealed 'skeleton on which the outer face is hung'; no 'glimpse' but reappearing on almost every other page. But it would be a rare work indeed that did not have the odd bit of dead wood in it.
I find it hard to imagine the book that beat Sight to win the Women's Prize for fiction but then the prize has a history of occasionally choosing (at least to my mind) very unworthy winners. I feel that literary panels are often wrongly swayed and blindsided by length and dramatic subject matter (revolutions, rapes, murders, war-torn communities, and of course the dreaded political 'questions': the 'woman' question, the 'race' question, the 'gender' question) while quieter, less sensational voices are drowned out. Actually, I am amazed that Sight made it onto the Women's Prize-list at all. Why it didn't even make the Booker Prize I have no idea. Despite being dazzled however, I found the novel ultimately unmoving and that the second half lacked momentum, depth and energy. Sometimes, for all the language's brilliance, I felt I was beating my way through a thicket. Very occasionally, there was a passage (like that spanning pages 186 and 7, for instance) that I found so vague as to be near totally meaningless or that arrived at a meaning so vague as to be worthless. For all her search for understanding and revelation, the narrator ends by saying: 'There is nothing more horrible than this: a world elucidated and all that is seen, understood…[p]erhaps…it was only this: the understanding that we are objects…that there is no mystery…that we might look and see ourselves' yet still concludes 'afraid of all that which, unseen, remains unknown…', until watching the line a machine traces as it monitors her unborn baby's heart, she suddenly and for no particular reason notices that 'something which had long occluded fell away at last and certainty was left behind…I could read at last…the understanding that what was important was only the way we stood to one another, protected and protector'. This felt pretty underwhelming to me; I wrote in the margin: 'of all the vague realizations!' Understanding is sought intensely in this novel but the main shifts (the narrator's decision to have a baby, the way she moves on from her mother's death, her response to her new-born child) are achieved not through understanding; when the much debated, longed for and feared baby finally arrives the narrator searches for meaning everywhere in order to understand 'the way things are…that [she] might feel the fragility of things less; but there is nothing there.'
And yet I am willing to forgive Jessie Greengrass almost anything because there are phrases in this novel that are startling in their piercing and beautiful truth; phrases that have the ring of a classic, as if Greengrass was born to write and words are simply flowing through her. '[G]rief's silent central eye', for example. In interviews Greengrass has stressed, unromantically, that writing is a job and should be treated as such and that she counted words per day. A phrase like that most probably comes as a flashing reward for hours of near-drudgery, a gift from the gods for their most fervent adherents.