On coming across Jessie Greengrass’s novel – her first, following her peculiarly arresting prizewinning collection of short stories An Account of the Decline of the Great Auk, According to One Who Saw It – you could be forgiven for thinking it a standard representative of a certain kind of fiction. The sort that bookshops and prize lists are full of, comprising heavily researched material, usually historical and biographical, that is filleted into – and more often than not just plain stuffed inside – a story that appears to be a work of the imagination. So the facts bump up against the fanciful to give the whole enterprise weight and substance, and readers can feel they are not wasting their time in a world of invention but are learning something.
Thus capitalism has its way with the novel; and the novel, in a highly competitive marketplace that sees Netflix and movies and games muscling in on its consumers, gets to live another day. The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton is a perfect recent example of this kind of phenomenon; George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo, while more subtle, is another.
So does Sight appear at first glance. A slight and wondrous tale of a young woman suffering the death of her mother while becoming a parent herself is also jam-packed with historical stories about Freud and psychoanalysis, as well as the 18th-century anatomical surgeons John and William Hunter, and Wilhelm Röntgen, who invented the X-ray. There’s a lot going on here, for sure, and all of it good “content”. Yet the difference between this and other genre-blending fiction is that in Sight the use of historical detail is as metaphor, as poetic device.
Instead of using biography to underpin a central narrative, there seems little here to connect accounts of Röntgen’s first photographing his wife’s hand and seeing right through it, or showing the poverty-ridden artist Jan van Rymsdyk being roused from his bed to draw bodies unearthed by the Hunter brothers for dissection, “his fingers stiffened by the cold, trying to keep the edges of his paper clean while in the corner of the room the discarded parts of already rotting human bodies lay in piles”.
But as the novel develops, these motifs start to pile up in the imagination and impart tone and meaning, each to the other, in a way that defies the usual conventions of prose. The overall effect of Sight is as though a series of transparencies has been laid one upon the other – Röntgen’s X-ray in reverse. The young woman at the base of the story is overwritten with images of all the shadowy figures she has been reading about in the quiet recesses of the library of the Wellcome Trust, off the busy Euston Road, where she goes to think and rest, “running my hands along the shelves until I found a subject that caught my attention”.
This approach – random-seeming, fragmentary, contiguous – builds a protagonist who has no clear story to tell, no “self” to unpack, who is strangely protean in her attributes and shadings; she seems to carry within her the ghosts of the other lives she researches, as part of her own imagined and then real pregnancy. In the course of describing her life – her relationship with her partner, what it’s like to carry and give birth to a child, her memories of childhood, and, as an adult, of caring for her dying mother – other biographies take shape within her. This allusive, poetic layering – the process of bringing a story into being – is what Sight is all about.
Greengrass is a philosopher – those short stories of hers were generally about asking questions, avoiding subjects. What it was to be-in-the-world, as Heidegger might have had it, to apprehend reality through narrative and perspective. That “Great Auk” and the “One Who Saw It” gives the clue. The novel is not so different, except that it brings to term the gravid consequences of an idea in a way the short story doesn’t have time for: here, the giving up of one’s life and body to another. That we might know this kind of overlapping – “ a single surface, joined”, as Greengrass puts it, to be inhabited by another, “the memory of my own daughter at birth, the firmness of her skin, the unexpected solidity she had like a well packed parcel” – is what we gain sight of in this novel.
Sometimes the engraved thinking within it – repeated passages about whether or not to become pregnant, and then having had a child, what it feels like to be a mother – reads like a treatise of sorts, as methodologically sound as the notes her grandmother, a psychoanalyst, has her inscribe about her dreams: “I was terrified of the irrevocability of birth and what came after it, how the raising of a child… might turn each of my actions into weighted accidents…” Yet the supporting narrative – the scenes with her grandmother, who was known as Dr K, a disciple of Freud, in her house in Hampstead, and those describing her nursing her dying mother, when “our lives began to fold in around one another… when I sponged her head with water to get out the last of the soap from what was left of her hair” – are beautifully rendered, human and intimate and quiet.
Sight would have been a stunning realist novel in its own right, without all the additional historical material dug up from the Wellcome; the sections about domesticity, about the seeping away of life into death, are equal to those in Tim Parks’s recent In Extremis, where his narrator was an adult child at his dying mother’s side and seemed to open the door on something we’d never read about before in fiction.
But if Jessie Greengrass had just written that novel, no doubt it would have been decreed too quiet to publish, with not enough going on, without a hook to grab the everyday reader… As it is, Sight, with its case histories of Freud and the Hunter brothers enclosed within the protagonist’s own private case study of maternity, is more than a whispered story of a shy girl and her mother and the grandmother who wrote down their dreams. By reveal-ing the other, lived lives between its covers, it becomes its own kind of fiction, a cabinet of curiosities containing bottles with once animate things inside them – like
the woman on the cover of this strange, affecting poem of a book – floating mid-air, neither live nor dead, suspended forever in the dark.
Kirsty Gunn’s books include “Infidelities” (Faber & Faber)
John Murray, 208pp, £14.99
This article appears in the 28 Feb 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The rise of the radical left