by MacKenzie Warren
There’s a recent strain of literature that I find intriguing, even though its setup is hopelessly dreary. A first-person narrator, in or close to the present day, conducts research into an historical figure, usually someone who lived in the nineteenth century, in such a way that the narrator’s findings reflect on his or her personal dilemmas. Think of books like Valeria Luiselli’s Faces in the Crowd (2011) or Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City (2016). They might be novels, they might be memoirs, they might be something in-between. Whatever the case, the historical research curls back upon the researcher and returns meaning to the narrator’s uncertain existence. Jessie Greengrass’ new novel Sight belongs very firmly to this strain of literature — and not just once, but three times over.
Sight is broken into three sections, each of which revolves around a different set of research subjects: Wilhelm Röntgen and his discovery of x-rays in 1895; Sigmund Freud and his relationship with his daughter, Anna; and John Hunter and Jan van Rymsdyk, the doctor and sketch artist responsible for the 1774 medical textbook The Anatomy of the Gravid Uterus Exhibited in Figures. In a general sense, the title of that book speaks to the condition of Greengrass’ narrator: she is a young mother wondering whether the time is right for her to conceive a second child. In a more specific sense, it’s the title of this book — Sight — that speaks of the narrator’s true concerns and her interest in the pioneering work of her research subjects. As she dreams about the possibility of becoming pregnant again, and as she thinks back on her earlier experience of pregnancy, the narrator finds herself preoccupied with the mental image of a child “turn[ing] aquatic loops in a space which I contained but couldn’t reach”, “floating in a space that was a kind of void to which I had no access”. This preoccupation sparks in her an overwhelming desire to lay eyes on that which cannot be seen — “to have the hidden made manifest: the components of ourselves, the world, the space between”, “to peel back the obscurant layers of myself”, to “glimpse” “what is underneath the surface, the skeleton on which the outer face is hung” — and this desire, in turn, leads her to her research subjects.
Wilhelm Röntgen, Sigmund and Anna Freud, Hunter and van Rymsdyk: all of them dedicated their lives to revealing that which escapes the naked eye; all of them made discoveries and developed theories that expanded the capabilities of human sight. Röntgen found a way to survey the substructure of the human body, to see straight through intact flesh. Freud and his daughter illuminated the workings of the mind, feeling their way through darkest recesses of the psyche — although, in Sight, the narrator’s real interest lies in a child’s redefinition of a parent, in the changes that Anna wrought on her father. Meanwhile, Hunter and van Rymsdyk literally illustrated the scientific establishment’s first sighting of the concealed organs of reproduction, detailing an autopsy on a pregnant woman who died prior to labour, from
the careful parting of skin and muscle like the drawing back of heavy curtains to give sight of the horizon beyond [to] the injection of blood vessels with a mixture of wax and dye so that their pathways might be visible, a new-drawn map of territory claimed; and then at last the long incision in her uterus and the uncovering of that which none of them had seen before and few others had thought to look for: an unborn baby, full term, curled tightly on the pillow of its placenta.
In its explorations of the work of these historical figures, and in its attempts to interweave them with the narrator’s thoughts on pregnancy, Sight is an interesting kind of failure. The novel as a whole doesn’t quite take off, doesn’t soar, for a couple of reasons. One reason is that the three sections never overlap in any meaningful way, so that, in retrospect, the final section makes the first one look vacuous: by the time the narrator comes around to Hunter and van Rymsdyk, it’s not clear that she has derived anything useful from her reading into the life of Röntgen. The larger reason is that the first section is easily the most dramatic, the most gripping, so that the novel hits a high note early on and then wobbles, wobbles, ends.
What makes the first section so impressive isn’t really the narrator’s account of Röntgen’s work, but her blunt, bracing examination of her relationship with her ailing mother. “My mother fell ill shortly after my twenty-first birthday”, she says in the opening pages, “and for a long time, despite the fact that I became responsible, by increments, for her care, I tried to carry on as if nothing was happening”. “By degrees”, she explains,
over the course of the months after her initial collapse, caused by a sudden burst of blood into the soft substance of her brain which, while stemmed, could not be stopped, my mother’s illness stripped her of strength and agency. Her muscles were unsprung, her joints unlocked. The medication which she took to keep the worst at bay caused her body to swell, doubling in size to a facsimile of health, her face plump and ruddy. For a while, with a diagnosis made and treatment-regime established, with radiotherapy a fortnightly inconvenience, she had seemed almost well, until that first week during which she had lain pale as paper in a hospital bed became a memory that left us giddy with relief for all it had marked an end to unchecked time. She was tired, perhaps, a little unsteady on her feet, and down one side of her skull, surrounded by a fur of regrowing hair, a scar ran that was the length of my hand and pink and smooth, but although she was not what she had been, neither had she become what I had feared she might, as I had sat amongst the tangle of tubes and monitors, the drips and beeps, and waited for what was left of her to surface from the surgeon’s work.
That is powerful writing, by any measure, and it only becomes more powerful as the mother continues to deteriorate and the narrator, in putting her own life on hold, is left to grapple in secret with unpalatable emotions. “The unfairness of [my] forced return angered me”, she admits, “but I felt too the impossibility of my anger, the imperviousness of events towards it; and sometimes as I struggled in the morning to force my way to the ticket barrier against the suited tide I felt again the disempowerment of childhood, that awareness of injustice and the futility of its protest”. She suffers conflicted feelings of ineptitude, because there is nothing she can do to help her mother really recover, and hopelessness, because the life she has built for herself is the price to be paid for a treatment plan destined to end in death. That’s implicitly why she develops an unusual feeling: the feeling that if only she could see inside her mother’s body and, as if by magic, rectify the defects beneath the surface, she might rebalance her life, her world. It is this feeling that orients the narrator towards the work of Wilhelm Röntgen, although what she ends up receiving from him, particularly in the wake of her mother’s death, is a heightened awareness of the disconnection between one’s physical self and one’s sense of selfhood. What Röntgen’s x-rays really revealed, after all, wasn’t just the inside of the human body; it was the possibility of a misconception of identity, a misalignment between the state of one’s body and one’s mind, a picture that could instantly deflate one’s imagined sense of one’s own wellbeing.
Once the narrator moves on from Röntgen to the Freud household, however, Sight begins to lose momentum. The second section of the novel forfeits the fraught mother-daughter dynamics of the first section, exchanging them for a more leisurely, lower-stakes description of the narrator’s grandmother’s dabbles in psychoanalysis. It also runs to a more tiresome length. The problem is not that there’s anything necessarily miscalculated about the narrator’s research into the Freuds; it’s that her writings on the abstract discoveries of psychoanalysis are sandwiched between two sections that each have a distinctly visceral, bodily focus, and she can’t reinvigorate her personal story to compensate for the second-gear research because it now revolves around childhood encounters with a remote elder. Things pick up again in the third section, especially as the narrator returns to the present day and considers the thoughts her partner, Johannes, using Hunter and van Rymsdyk’s Anatomy as a touchstone for the different ways in which the bodily experience of pregnancy affects men and women:
The child was, for Johannes, still largely hypothetical: his life so far remained predominantly unchanged and what I felt as a set of prohibitions and a physical incapacity, a slow-fast-slow remaking of my own biology, was for him hardly more than anticipation, like waiting for Christmas to come — the gradual, enjoyable winding-up of affairs before the holidays. He would not feel the child’s weight until he held it in his arms, an object, loved but as apart as he and I were: a thing to be learned, understood from the outside as a puzzle or a book is understood, imperfectly, wholeheartedly. Things were not, for him, so ambiguous: the harbouring of a stranger inside oneself, this the closest to another person it is possible to be but that person still unnamed, unmet.
Yet even this peculiar line of thought does not return Sight to the heights it reaches in its first section, perhaps because its research subjects address the subject of pregnancy too directly. And while it is almost a given that a novel like this will reach an inconclusive ending, the final pages of Sight are not so much inconclusive as indecisive. The novel seems to drift aimlessly out into silence — disappointingly so, looking back at the vibrancy and gravity of its opening pages.
If there’s one thing that leaves a lasting impression from the final two sections of Sight, it is, ironically, something absolutely invisible: the narrator’s metaphysics. “[T]he price of sight”, she says at one point, “is wonder’s diminishment”. As her research efforts make her powers of sight more penetrating, she is at pains not to lose her sense of wonder at inexplicable phenomena, which means, in effect, that she seeks out the inexplicable in the invisible — especially in the notion of contingency, its influence on her own life to date and the life of her unborn child. In the first section, her research discoveries spark a sudden, radiant awareness of “what enormous coincidence existence consists of”, and, she adds, “how easily, how unwittingly we might break each possible future in favour of another and how, looking back, in place of what had been possible we would see only that thin contingent line, what happened, rising through the vast and empty darkness of what did not”. This image of contingency could have appeared as a one-off remark, but the narrator returns to it, echoing her earlier words, in the latter half of the novel: she wishes she could fully comprehend “the particular set of events that have occurred weighed against all those that might have done, but didn’t, so that our lives together [seem] at times nothing but an impossibly narrow pathway rising through shadows”.
The narrator expands on these thoughts from time to time, usually in the course of her vacillations over whether or not to have another child. “Our lives”, she says, “are possibility reduced to rough particularity by contact, touch, and out of it the specificity of each of us comes”, and from this observation she draws a surprising moral conclusion: “to ask if we might have been better otherwise is to wish ourselves undone”. “Looking back”, she says later, flirting with the possibility of making that unwise wish,
we might try to make sense — to stand in a calm spot, latterly, and examine at leisure the details of a running tumble we barely kept pace with, the cumulative outcome of decisions made blindly or not at all, and try and find significance in it, some repetition of a universal pattern played out in ourselves. This would be comfort: to believe both that things could not have been other than they were and that how they were was right, one’s life a well-formed argument, each moment a logical progression from the last.
As these metaphysical passages illustrate, Sight is a novel of rare seriousness, solemnity, and occasionally exquisite beauty. It’s a shame that it loses its way, that it doesn’t cohere, after such early promise; Greengrass made her début with the short story collection An Account of the Decline of the Great Auk, According to One Who Saw It (2015), and in many ways Sight feels like the work of a writer trying to make a novel out of three short stories and falling short of breath. It is eloquent, insightful, and deadly earnest in its examinations of conception, pregnancy, and parenting — their practicalities and their ethics. Stylistically lucid, sometimes virtuosic in the length and intricacy of its sentences, it’s certainly a novel that aims to leave an impression on its readers, even if the impression fades somewhat before the novel ends.
Although I remain intrigued by the strain of literature to which it belongs, this literature is dogged by a big risk: that the narrator’s research will come to serve as a crutch, as something to prop up a novel when the personal narrative falters. This is a risk that Sight ultimately succumbs to, albeit unnecessarily: its narrator is strong enough, thoughtful enough, engaging enough on her own; she doesn’t need Sigmund and Anna Freud, or Hunter and van Rymsdyk, and she only lightly makes use of Wilhelm Röntgen. It’s worth hoping that, in her future work, Greengrass puts more faith in her own abilities, that she kicks aside the crutch of research to set off by herself along that “narrow pathway rising through shadows”. Her voice, after all, is the most interesting voice in Sight, and the only one I wanted to hear more of, unobscured by others.
MacKenzie Warren read English at Oriel College, Oxford. She now lives in Bristol where she works as a freelance copywriter and social policy advisor for the local authority.