Sight by Jessie Greengrass
The narrator had a lonely childhood. An only child, conflict between her parents led to her father drifting out of her life in her teens. Her grandmother, known to everyone as Doctor K, was a psychoanalyst who seems to have used the analytic stance as a way of avoiding intimacy with her family. As a young child, the narrator’s mother was interrogated on her dreams at the breakfast table until she gave up having any; the narrator, on her annual visits, is invited to sit under her gaze for half an hour every evening in the consulting room, only the presence of drinks and the absence of the sign on the door differentiating it from therapy.
Like the early analysts whose work the narrator explores, she has a strange concept of boundaries: renting the ground floor of her house to a former patient; continuing some analyses by letter during the Christmas break she spends with the narrator and her mother; working through the month of August (which psychoanalytic psychotherapists usually take off) despite her granddaughter coming to visit. She does, however provide the narrator a lovely description of what analysis is about (p80-81):
The analyst … is not a tour guide, leading their client through those vast and vaulted galleries, the cloisters of the mind, and nor is it their task to point out shadows, but rather they must provide instruction in the mechanics of such shadows’ investigation. It is only … when a person has gained the skills necessary to explore the territory for themselves, to unpack their own minds and begin to understand the contents, that they might start the work necessary to make their experience, their behaviour meaningful; and then at last they might start to become transparent to themselves.
Not long after she graduates from university, when she’s still finding her feet in the adult world, she has to nurse her mother through a terminal illness, after which she develops excruciating headaches. Cue the opportunity to explore the development of technologies to look inside the body, this time to the brain rather than the mind, with musings on the discovery of x-rays (Rontgen’s poor wife fearing she’d seen herself dead when shown an x-ray of her hand), as she undergoes an MRI scan. Later, after much understandable dithering about whether or not she should have a child, she attends the hospital for ultrasound appointments while learning about 18th-century research into the anatomy of pregnant bodies.
Jessie Greengrass debut novel (and second book after a prize-winning short story collection) is a thoughtful plotless literary novel about the development of technologies through which we might see into ourselves. It’s no surprise to read that the author is a philosopher! An unusual and ambitious novel; thanks to John Murray for my review copy.
Consent by Leo Benedictus
Leo Benedictus gradually pulls the reader in to his character’s nightmare mind. At the beginning, he’s odd, but engagingly so, and, like any scientist, unflinchingly honest, obsessed with detail and concerned with experimental procedure. He muses on what it means to be a person, and frets about the impact of the observer on the observed. For me, the violence was a little too gruesome and I didn’t need to be told that the narrator was mad. But, overall, it’s a clever and satisfying second novel, the creepy narrator slightly reminiscent of Steve in my own second novel, Underneath. Thanks to Faber and Faber for my review copy.