I read Jessie Greengrass’s Sight: A Novel just after finishing Sheila Heti’s Motherhood: A Novel. The two books are in many ways similar. Both authors discuss the decision of whether or not to have children and other existential questions in language that can be as cumbersome as it is beautiful. Both try to break up their protagonist’s intense rumination. (Greengrass does so with dalliances into seventeenth-century scientific breakthroughs and the birth of psychoanalysis, which serve the purpose but get a bit repetitive in addressing the mental states of Wilhelm Roentgen and Anna Freud.) Neither book could be described as a page-turner.
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.