Sight, Jessie Greengrass’s debut novel, weaves an unnamed narrator’s meditations on her decision to be a mother, her own mother’s early death and her relationship with her grandmother in with historical stories of discovery and progress.
Greengrass dissects these scientific studies for their emotional resonance. Of Wilhelm Roentgen’s discovery of X-Rays one of the things she is interested in is his disappointment, where “afterward nothing was different at all, and although he had seen through metal and seen through flesh to what was hidden…what had been left was only so much quibbling at the bill” (p.45). Other cases that get this thorough treatment are Freud’s study of a phobic five-year-old known as Little Hans, as well as his relationship in general with his daughter Anna, and John and William Hunter’s 18th century discoveries on pregnancy.
In deciding whether or not to have a baby (we know from the start that she will settle in the positive) the narrator reflects on what she would be giving up in order to become a mother. The novel also questions what parents must then lose again in order for their children to reach adulthood successfully. On the narrator’s thoughts around her young daughter’s maturing past toddler-hood Greengrass’s insight is heart-breaking: “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.” (p.2).
But what would be the alternative, we are asked, Anna Freud living in her father’s house with his analyst room still in the centre of it untouched – “a still unconsecrated monument” (p.125)?
All the stories interlink with the idea that someone has to lose something for society to seem to progress – parents have to lose the lives they had before in order to have children, and then lose the children again, women have to die painfully in labour so that surgeons can learn how to perform caesarean sections. Even the loss of mystery that seeing the interior of her hand brings is felt as death-like by Bertha Roentgen when her husband demonstrates his discovery (p.46).
Sight also quietly wonders who the people are who have to make these sacrifices. Do mothers lose more than fathers? “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… was for him hardly more than anticipation waiting for Christmas to come…” (p.159). Whose corpses rot in basements so that we can see what our origins look like, as the unnamed dead model for Jan van Rymsdyk’s engraving The Anatomy of the Human Gravid Uterus did? The answer more often than not is women or, as in Freud’s case of Little Hans, children.
At linking these stories to form the overarching questions I found Greengrass’s novel to be smoothly expert and I’m not surprised it has been shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction this year.