Sight – Jessie Greengrass

Long, complex sentences and surprise physics. These are a few of my favourite things.

Sight is an unnamed narrators contemplation of her significant familial relationships. She begins the book pregnant with her second child, and thinking about the decision to begin a family. She remembers nursing her dying mother, and spending childhood summers with her psychoanalyst grandmother. Finally, she thinks about the time when her relationship with her partner, Johannes, was beginning.

It opens with:

The start of another summer, the weather uncertain but no longer sharply edged, and I am pregnant again.


Interspersed with these recollections are three historical medicine related stories. The first is Röntgen’s discovery of x-rays. The second is Freud’s psychoanalysis of his daughter, Anna.  The final one is Jan van Rymsdyk and his reluctant medical illustrations. The historical stories link to the narrator’s recollections in various ways. For example, she spends time after her mother dies in a library, reading about Röntgen amongst other historical figures.

Reading Röntgen’s paper for the first time one sunny afternoon at my desk in the library I had been able to follow the thread of it with comparative ease, and surely this was the last time that such a feat was possible: the framing of a radical scientific discovery in ordinary language, the ability to impart understanding without first having to construct a language in which to do so.

I need to read that paper now. 

Sight is written in incredibly long sentences that flow poetically and effortlessly. At least I thought they did. In fact, it took a while of reading it before I even realised some of the sentences were half a page long! I’m not the only one who loves this book, it’s on this years Women’s Prize for Fiction shortlist.


I really enjoyed reading Sight. The relationships all felt believable, and I really felt for the narrator when she was considering if she wanted to have a baby or not. I loved the Röntgen story, but I am a physicist and so this was like a little hidden gem for me. When his wife is horrified by the image of her x-rayed hand, I knew the exact image because it’s in most general physics text books. Don’t let this put you off though. 🙂

Also, and I don’t want this to sound too dramatic… but parts of this book made me feel like it was teaching me to be a better parent. To appreciate little moments with my children more. I know, right? wtf. The power of prose.

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.

and passages like this…

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, but I didn’t recognise my freedom then – or wasn’t free, since freedom only functions as an opposite to constraint.

These parts of Sight were like therapy for me!

This is the second book in a row where I’ve been on a positive highlighting frenzy (Grayson Perry’s The Descent of Man is the other one). It’s not normally what happens when I read books! I’ll just carry on with quoting the highlights of my highlights, because I want to come back and read them later. On dignity in pregnancy:

At last the sonographer stood up. For a minute she fiddled with the large machine beside the bed, angling its articulated monitor, then saying – This will feel a little cold, squeezed gel onto my stomach, a great, chilly splurt which I would afterwards be left to wipe off with a paper towel, my furtive embarrassment at the task the first in a series of slight indignities which over the next six months would strip me, layer by layer, until at last I was nothing but flesh and would lie naked in another room and scream while strangers came and went about me.

That’s some sentence. She describes birth as ‘that ten hour lesson in topography’. I would not have been surprised to find out that Greengrass has a science background, the prose is littered with little sciency things like this, but I don’t think she has. This is extra funny because I was discussing the topography of the human body with my class last week, and if having an endoscope is technically non-invasive treatment. It’s ok, they were disgusted with me too.

There are some beautiful thoughts about grief too. Overall it’s not an uplifting read, but it is lovely nonetheless. Right now, I’m hoping it wins the Women’s prize!


4 thoughts on “Sight – Jessie Greengrass

  1. Pingback: Books Bought and Read – April 2018 | Be Exactly Who You Want To Be

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