I haven’t yet finished shadowing this year’s Wellcome Book Prize shortlist but I have already come across a novel which has very strong potential to be on next year’s longlist of books which engage in some aspect of health, illness or medicine. I enjoyed reading Jessie Greengrass’s collection of short stories An Account of the Decline of the Great Auk, According to One Who Saw It and her debut novel tells the story of an unnamed narrator who is expecting her second child with her partner, Johannes. During her pregnancy, she reflects on her relationships with her mother who she cared for during her terminal illness and her psychoanalyst grandmother known as “Doctor K”.
The pregnancy is planned, but the narrator has doubts about how having a second child will impact her relationship with her toddler daughter. She spends time in the Wellcome Library in London which specialises in books about medicine, researching Wilhelm Röntgen’s pioneering work on x-rays, Freud’s work on psychoanalysis and John Hunter’s surgical experiments, hoping that books will provide her with a better understanding of her changing body and self. The prose blends factual descriptions of these discoveries with the narrator’s meditations on her experiences of pregnancy and her family relationships, particularly her roles as a daughter, granddaughter and mother. This introduces some interesting reflections on transition in the context of parenting and grief, and the blurred boundary between truth and fiction. Although I have read a fair amount of novels which explore motherhood, pregnancy itself is rarely described in detail in literary fiction or is presented as problematic (Greengrass wrote an interesting article about this topic in the Guardian recently) and I really liked the way that Greengrass merged situations that many will find relatable with more stylised and introspective passages.
I was intrigued by the medical themes of ‘Sight’ but given some of the more philosophical elements, I had wondered if the prose might be too vague and fragmented for my personal taste. However, I was pleasantly surprised by how absorbing and gripping ‘Sight’ is in spite of the slow pace and relative absence of plot. It is a fairly short book even with the non-fiction elements to pad it out a bit, and the prose is elegantly crafted and tightly controlled, as those who enjoyed Greengrass’s short stories will already know. ‘Sight’ is on the longlist for the Women’s Prize for Fiction and I would be very happy to see it on the shortlist which will be announced tomorrow. Many thanks to John Murray Press for sending me a review copy via NetGalley.