Sunday, 15 July 2018


Having read about great auks in 'The Sixth Extinction' I had been quite intrigued by Jessie Greengrass's short story collection entitled 'An account of the decline of the great auk, according to one who saw it', but it is her first novel 'Sight' that I have read, one of several I am reading on the Women's Prize for Fiction shortlist. 

The story is an interesting interplay of narratives; it follows our unnamed narrator through her second pregnancy and also her childhood relationship with her grandmother, interwoven with the story of Freud's relationship with his youngest child Anna and also the life of John Hunter, an 18th century surgeon and founder of the Hunterian Museum. While I enjoyed the historical stuff more than the story of the narrator I find that the quotes I have saved are all about her experience of expectancy. I found her irritating because I could not imagine agonising so profoundly over the choice to have a child, as if she thinks it is a decision made through rational thought. Though I did not articulate, or even think them so much at the time, I found she manages to express the experience of pregnancy, the loss of self and the overwhelming sense of responsibility and the impossibility of doing it 'right'. 

"This is the crux of it; that we have no point of comparison and therefore cannot say things would have been better otherwise. I remember how it was with my daughter - how she coughed, and spat, and cried, and after being weighed was passed over to Johannes, who undid the buttons of his shirt and held her slippery, aquatic form against his freckled skin, and how from that moment on it seemed to me that the infinite stretch of possibilities she had started as began to collapse, falling away from our touch to leave behind the emergent outlines of her shape - curious, incautious, kind - and I remember how it terrified me, the sudden yawning space between what is meant and what is done." (p.126)

Here talking about the change in her and her daughter's needs as she grows up (This one is also a nice example of her style, with lovely complex sentences that require proper attention when reading.):

"Then she still hung from me, all mouth and fingers, and treated my presence as an unconsidered right, neither looked for nor enjoyed but only expected, so that to leave was respite, a moment when I could feel myself briefly to be whole. Now she has become something else, a mind inside a body, separate, and it seems to me that the extent of that separation from me is the extent to which I cannot bear to be apart from her. I had thought that I would continue to fall backwards into singularity as to a norm from which my deviation was temporary, and that without her I would be myself again, whole and undivided; but instead I am half-made, a house with one wall open to the wind - " (p.133)

Here, the changed bond with her husband:

"The way my body interposed itself between Johannes and his child gave me an unacknowledged right to disregard him if I chose, and it gave me privilege of access, touch, an assurance of my necessary place that Johannes lacked. It was there in the way he trailed after me through hospital corridors, his presence an afterthought, and in the subtle, unarticulated presumption made by others that he would feel love less than I, or loss; but his life too had been made strange and would be altered - and it was hard in the end to say which of us had been put more in the other's keeping. Standing in the supermarket queue behind a man buying twenty-five bottles of bathroom cleaner I saw for the first time the unintended consequences of our actions: that in choosing to have a child we had become that we had thought ourselves to be already: inextricably involved with one another, knotted up, as though a part of our child's chimerical genetics had transferred itself to us and now we were each partially the other; and, so, waiting in the checkout line, we held ourselves very carefully, just apart, to save both ourselves and each other from accidental injury." (p.141-2)

On her changed relationship with her body:

"I had always, before my first pregnancy, regarded my body as a kind of tool, a necessary mechanism, largely self-sustaining, which, unless malfunctioning, did what I instructed of it, and so to have my agency so abruptly curtailed, revealed as little more than conceit, felt like a betrayal. I no longer listened to my own command. Inside me, while I wished that I might be able to be elsewhere, that I might leave my body in the frowsty sheets and go downstairs to sit in the dark kitchen, unswollen and cool, cells split to cells, thoughtless and ascending, forming heart and lungs, eyes, ears - a hand grew nails - this child already going about its business, its still uncomprehending mind unreachable, apart." (p.161)

And the overwhelming anxiety about parenthood:

"... I had felt myself becoming increasingly unfamiliar, emptied out of all the thoughts I'd had before and refilled with there new concerns; and the stranger I became the stranger too Johannes was, different and far away, until the old presumption of ease was replaced with an algorithm of concern and debt. The we were along together, when we sat down to eat or when we walked in the park during the long light evening, our pace a poor equivocation between Johannes' long stride and my ponderous shamble, I was not peaceful but spoke at length, planning out a future that we hadn't yet the means to imagine, my speech an obsessive examination of the possible ways we might live after the baby was born, how we might divide the labour up, and what we needed, what there was to do and what might be left till later. I harangued and argued with myself, considered out loud the possible effects of a weight of historical wrongs, the flaws of our respective characters, the way I wished things might be done, as though i might talk myself into quietness or as though, by talking, I might call into being there between the heavy summer alders the best possible version of ourselves - as though I might make myself ready; but I could not prepare myself for something so unknown nor find any way across the next months except by living them, and so my monologue was little more than benediction, the filling up of empty space with prayer. I didn't know what to do with myself otherwise. All that I had been before I had given up already and the emptiness was appalling." (p.179-80)

The narration has very much the feel of an inner monologue, the way your mind goes over and over, stuck in a rut, searching for an answer. It also conveys how all consuming pregnancy can be, you cannot escape it, your own physicality becomes the focus of all your attention in a way it is not normally. Maybe it's a sign that pregnancy is long and boring and gives you far too much time for introspection. You either end up focused on the practicalities of caring for a tiny human being, which is more what I felt overwhelmed by, or you agonise over your loss of identity. Having said all that it did not feel as if that is what the book is about; with all the other threads at times I forgot all about the baby. A strange and subtle book that was a very satisfying read, and who doesn't love a novel that needs a list of 'further reading' at the back.

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