At the beginning of Kennedy Fraser’s essay “Ornament and Silence,” about reading Virginia Woolf, she writes, “There was a time when my life seemed so painful to me that reading about the lives of other women writers was one of the few things that could help.” At the time, “unhappy, and ashamed of it . . . baffled by my life,” Fraser confesses to having hungered in particular for “the desperate bits,” “the secret, shameful things about these women—the pain.” I remember once, years ago, when I was at a writers’ colony and a photocopy of this essay was being passed among the women in residence. I thought of this while reading Greengrass’s novel, mentally placing it on Fraser’s shelf.
Like Woolf, who sets forth her belief that “there is a pattern hid behind the cotton wool” of everyday life, in her memoir “A Sketch of the Past,” another work concerned with mourning a mother, Greengrass’s narrator hopes to find some underlying structure whose discovery might lead to an explanation of why the world is the way it is and how we ourselves fit in. And, like a certain type of person—usually female—Greengrass’s narrator knows that, in times of emotional crisis, only one thing will help. In the anguished period following her mother’s death, she commutes each morning to the Wellcome Collection’s library of medical science and history, where she ensconces herself, reading at random. A habitual reader, she expects the activity to be soothing, but there is, as well, her fragile hope that somewhere in all those volumes lies “that fact which would make sense of my growing unhappiness,” and that she might find “a way to understand myself by analogy, a pattern recognized in other lives which might be drawn across my own to give it shape and, given shape, to give it impetus, direction.”
The novel’s several long, detailed digressions on major moments in science and medicine include the experiments that resulted in Wilhelm Röntgen’s discovery, in 1895, of the X-ray; Freud’s development of the theory of psychoanalysis; and the anatomical and surgical studies of the eighteenth-century physician brothers William and John Hunter, which led to, among other things, important findings in obstetrics. These discursions are among the book’s keenest pleasures, expanding the scope of the narrator’s thinking and deepening the meaning of her intimate reminiscences through a mesmerizing succession of echoes, parallels, and associations.
They also help us to see that the reason Doctor K looms larger than any other character, aside from the protagonist herself, is that she shares her granddaughter’s preoccupation with sight and manifesting the hidden. It is, after all, the hope that psychoanalysis holds out: the existence of some buried fact whose excavation will bring clarity and—theoretically—relief from suffering. As Doctor K instructs her granddaughter, “without the capacity to trace our lives backwards and pick the patterns out, we become liable to act as animals do.” Without a commitment to regular, disciplined self-examination and analysis, “self-determination is an illusion,” Doctor K says. But the narrator is all too aware that knowledge of ourselves, and of other people, even those we love, often remains opaque, despite all efforts at elucidation. She is aware, too, of the risks in penetrating the mysterious—that “the price of sight is wonder’s diminishment.” As she learns in her reading, when Röntgen showed his wife, Bertha, the X-ray he had taken of her hand, her wedding ring dark against the pale, fleshless bone, the shaken woman could not share his triumphant excitement. “It is—like seeing my own death,” she said.
The novel’s Sebaldian form, its rejection of the conventions of novel writing, suggests that Greengrass is of that camp of contemporary writers, which includes Heti, Karl Ove Knausgård, and Rachel Cusk, among others, for whom traditional realism’s promise of verisimilitude and transparency is just another delusion. So, too, perhaps, is a sense of narrative arc. The narrator’s suffering does not end once her daughter is born: “I was too frightened of the feel of her; and so 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.” In writing as apparently confessional as this (in an interview, Greengrass has acknowledged that, if not strictly a work of autofiction, “Sight” “comes from a similar place”), one looks for at least a hint of wryness, some evidence that the writer is able to poke a little fun at herself. But “Sight” is a stubbornly serious and often brooding book. Even awaiting the birth of her second child, the narrator is still asking herself whether she was right to give life to her first—recalling how, during her first pregnancy, she fortified herself against self-doubt with “the commitment to make myself the best mother I could to make up for having made myself one at all.”
If, at such moments, the narrator’s dwelling on her emotional ordeals begins to wear the reader down, her intelligence and honesty continue to dazzle, and the novel as a whole exudes a strange consoling power. I was reminded of another essay, by Anne Carson, in which she writes of how, the day after her mother’s funeral, she found herself reading in Woolf’s diaries, “looking for comfort, I suppose,” and wondering, “Why are these pages comforting? They led her, after all, to the River Ouse. Yet strong pleasure rises from every sentence.” My own mother died while I was reading “Sight.” I have been overthinking about her ever since.