book review: Sight by Jessie Greengrass

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SIGHT by Jessie Greengrass
★★★☆☆
Hogarth Press, August 21, 2018

Sight is an ambitious and introspective novel in which our unnamed narrator recounts her experience with new motherhood, while at the same time coming to terms with the death of her own mother and grandmother. To say that I have conflicting feelings about this novel would be an understatement; it’s like every singular element of this novel draws two completely contradictory reactions from me. I both admire it and find it insufferable at the exact same time.

Let’s start with the prose, which is what everyone is going to be talking about when they talk about Sight, and rightfully so. It feels like Jessie Greengrass’s sentences go on for days, each one carefully crafted to show very evident technical skill. Some of these sentences are striking, with poignant, meaningful commentary on the human condition:

“I want only what I think we all must want: to come off as better than I ought, more generous, more sure–kinder than I know myself to be; but I want also to be known, to be counted and to be excused. I can’t have both.”

Some, not so much:

“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 mean, ‘I had morning sickness’ would have sufficed, but okay.

After a while of immersing yourself in this prose, what first feels lush and fresh begins to feel methodical and calculated – even the variances of syntax have a very distinct rhythm to them. At times I would get lulled into it, and at others, it would feel like it was written by a particularly verbose robot. The interesting thing about Sight is that while it endeavors to reflect on the human condition, it does so in such a measured way it’s almost as if it’s devoid of all humanity. This is a book and a character that wants to be able to reduce the human experience to a series of elements which can be scientifically categorized, made evident by the heavy integration of medical history into the narrative.

That brings me to my next point, which is that Sight is very light on the narrative. This entire book is driven by the narrator’s fixation on her relationship with her mother, on whether or not she wants to have a child, on her ownership of her own body – and while I’d take character-driven novels over plot-driven novels any day, I hesitate to even call this character-driven, because by the end of it, we still know hardly anything about this person. For all the navel-gazing in this novel, we don’t even know where this character works. Does she even have a job? No, this isn’t the point, but it also makes it harder to fully immerse yourself in this character’s world.

There’s another line, “but the price of sight is wonder’s diminishment” which I think not only sums up this character’s introspective journey, but also, for me sort of characterizes the book as a whole. This is a book which dives into themes which I ordinarily find interesting – how well can we truly know other people, how well can we know ourselves – and examines them so thoroughly, it leaves almost no room for the reader to actively engage. I feel like this is one of those novels which attempts to ask questions of its readers without being particularly interested in their answers, because you can find all of the answers in its pages. I mean, maybe that’s not even a bad thing. It just doesn’t get me particularly excited.

I admire the technical skill that went into this novel, but it ultimately didn’t leave as strong of an impression on me as I had hoped it would. But there’s a lot of thoughtful commentary in these pages, and it’s worth a read if you like your books heavy on the philosophy.

Thank you to Netgalley, Hogarth Press, and Jessie Greengrass for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review.

9 thoughts on “book review: Sight by Jessie Greengrass

  1. 100% agree with this assessment. Sight’s got some beautiful writing in it but there’s this constant feeling of being held away, at a distance, and in a novel that is so explicitly inviting the reader to share in a profound physical and emotional experience, that’s not good.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, exactly! I think the unnamed, enigmatic narrator thing can be quite effective in certain instances, but not when the author’s asking you to take such an intimate journey with this person. I wonder if the paradoxical nature of this character examining herself so thoroughly while not showing parts of herself to the reader was intentional… anyway, it didn’t completely work for me.

      Like

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