BOOK REVIEW: Sight by Jessie Greengrass

When I heard that Jessie Greengrass had been given the licence to write a novel, I was for want of a better word ecstatic. Greengrass had given life to a wonderful collection of short stories ‘An Account of the Decline of the Great Auk, According to One Who Saw It’ which I had the joy and privileged of reading and reviewing for STORGY you can read my review here. Let’s just say I was a huge fan of this collection which went on to win the Edge Hill Short Story Prize, Somerset Maugham Award and shortlisted in the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award. So what could Greengrass produce for us in the novel format, and would it be able to live up to her beautiful collection of short stories?

Sight’ is an interesting beast of a book, it’s layered, as Shrek would say, like an onion. It’s about being a parent, being a child and seeing your parents for all their flaws, it’s about growing up and trying to come to terms with existing in a world where your parents, your only constant in that world, are no longer there. Its layers run deep, seeing how people come to terms with caring for their parent, who at once were their caregivers; plus throw a bit of scientific bafflement (which I found rather interesting how this gave structure to ‘Sight’ and details therein) tales of how X-Rays came about, the origins of modern surgery and psychoanalysis – now you’ve got yourself a book!

‘This was the closest that I ever felt to her, I think; but I felt too as though in the winning of proximity something had been dismantled which had kept me sheltered. Love, for my mother, was not distinct from action. For years she had been putting into practice the contention that we exist, not as icebergs do, nine-tenths hidden and the visible portion no more than a poor clue to the greater, deeper bulk below, but at the surface, spread out along our planes of intersection; and now for an afternoon we had replaced this solid surety of position with something else and, perched above London with our parcels, I felt the lack of it.’

Sight’ is a tale that encompasses the heart, mind and soul, with prose that coil around your heart like a squid, gently gripping and suffocating you with their brilliance. I firmly believe that the mastery Greengrass shows in her prose is down to her tremendous work in the short story form, to quote Joe Hill ‘Short novels are all killer, no filler’. Greengrass delivers a deliciously paced novel, splicing in structural components (scientific historical information) that help to develop the story whilst also aiding in giving the reader a break from the main subject of the story – although these are linked subtly to what is transpiring at the heart of the novel. This is something I personally feels harks back to the short story form with their insertion into the story, it allows time to pass without having to state it, it allows the reader time to reflect and allows Greengrass the room to show her pedigree as a terrific writer and raconteur.

‘In the end, during the last few months of my mother’s life, in place of conversation or confession I read to her, picking off the shelves those same books that she had read to me in childhood, for the comfort of it and because it was a way to try and draw a link between us, so that for hours at a time we were engaged in the revisiting of worlds that we had been admitted to before, in a different configuration, when it was clearer which of the two of us led and which followed. While she drifted in and out of a sleep that grew by degrees heavier and stiller, smoothing away her features as though it were an encroaching tide that would leave, at last, nothing but clean sand where her face had been, I allowed my voice to fill the air, keeping out the silence that might otherwise have called to be filled with what I no longer had the capacity to bear.’

Greengrass writes with an assured tone, something that resembles a babbling brook, words flow from her mind and appear on the page with such clarity and grace it’s hard not to be blown away by the sheer brilliance of the work and her ability as a wordsmith. Having said all of this it did take me a while to get into the ebb and flow of the story, at first I didn’t really comprehend why these areas of scientific studies throughout history were in there; they kept pulling me away from the story that I really wanted to read about…but after persevering, and relaxing in the current of Greengrass’ words, I realised these were the cornerstones to the whole story, so if you’re like me, and wondering what is going on, keep faith Greengrass knows what she is doing, even if we may question her.

If you are a fan of her short story work I would recommend you take a look at her efforts at long distance, she has the stamina, strength and ability to create more fabulous work in this field in the future. If you are a fan of impeccably good writing, a tightly woven story and prose to lose yourself in, then pick up a copy of ‘Sight’.

 

Jessie Greengrass

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Jessie Greengrass was born in 1982. She studied philosophy in Cambridge and London, where she now lives with her partner and child. An Account of the Decline of the Great Auk, According to One Who Saw It won the Edge Hill Short Story Prize and a Somerset Maugham Award, and was shortlisted for the PFD/Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year. Sight is her first novel.

Sight is available from John Murray and imprint of Hodder & Stoughton here.

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Reviewed by Ross Jeffery

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