Sights Unseen by Kaye Gibbons

The New York Public Library is my new best friend. On a Tuesday after work I usually pop into the Mid Manhattan branch to change my books, and I enjoy spending a pleasant twenty minutes or so choosing my reading material for the next week. The joy of using the library rather than buying books in a shop is that I am free to try a variety of books outside of my usual favourite genres and authors without worrying whether I will have wasted my money, because I don’t have to spend any! Last week I was in the G section looking for Ellen Foster, and they didn’t have it. In fact, they had every Kaye Gibbons book BUT Ellen Foster. So, I took a chance and picked up Sights Unseen, as its southern setting and mother-daughter relationship topic sounded interesting and non demanding. I was right about the interesting part, but totally wrong about the non demanding; though it’s a short book that I read in just a couple of days, it was so rich and emotive and fascinating that I ended up using far more brain power in absorbing it and thinking about it than I had expected. Kaye Gibbons’ writing style is strangely addictive, and engrossing, and I am now eager to try the other novels of hers that sit on the library shelves.

Sights Unseen is the story of Maggie Barnes’ manic depression and the struggle of her family to cope with it, told through the eyes of her now adult daughter Hattie. After fifteen years of recovery and a happy, full life, Maggie suddenly dies falling down stairs, and Hattie, her father and brother, feel great anger and sorrow at losing the woman they loved when she was enjoying her life to the full and looking forward to so much. This prompts Hattie to look back and consider the often painful childhood she experienced in having a manic depressive for a mother, and now she is a mother herself, she considers how Maggie must have felt in being unable to connect with and enjoy the family life Hattie does. Moments that most marked the family’s life are described in searing detail, and Hattie grows to view these events not from her then childish eyes, but from her mother’s, enabling her to feel compassion where before there was just disappointment and anger.

The Barnes family lived in a small, tight knit North Carolina town in the 1950s, where Mr Barnes, Hattie’s father, was a prominent citizen and very wealthy. Maggie and Frederick, Hattie’s parents, are very much in love, and Frederick is devoted to his vibrant, intelligent wife. When she gradually begins to display manic symptoms, he does everything he can, with the help of his father, who also adores Maggie, to keep her in check and safe from harm, but after Hattie’s birth, the situation gets so bad that they struggle to control her. Pearl, a black servant with knowledge of how to take care of mentally disturbed charges, is taken on to look after Maggie and the children, and she becomes a calming influence in the house, and a mother to the children Maggie is completely unable to care for.

Hattie keenly feels the loss of the type of mother she wishes she had, and the childhood she knows, even at a young age, she is missing out on. Unlike her school friends, she can’t have friends over after school or host birthday parties and sleepovers; in fear of exposing her mother’s true condition to the world, all people outside of the family must be kept away. Hattie doesn’t get hugs or kisses from her mother; they don’t bake together or share secrets or go shopping for clothes; all of these activities are done by Pearl, who becomes the mother Maggie’s illness has prevented her from being. Freddy, Hattie’s older brother, deals with the situation by lashing out at his mother and hiding in his room, where he buries himself in his school work. On the rare occasions when Maggie is lucid, she does her best to become the ‘real mother’ she so obviously wants to be, but this isn’t good enough for Freddy, who has grown to hate his mother and the damage she has done to their family, and Hattie can’t enjoy it, frozen with fear that she will return from school to find her mother mad again.

As the years go by, the intervals between Maggie’s episodes get smaller and smaller until she is almost permanently mad, and it is only when she manages to escape the house and reveals to the small town where they live her true condition that she is admitted to hospital for help. When she comes back, she is cured, but the wounds her madness caused in her children remain, and it is these wounds that Hattie explores in the novel after her mother has died. Now she is an adult, she can see that she wasn’t the only one hurting, and that her mother’s inability to express love for her children or be the mother she wanted must have been incredibly heartbreaking for her, too, with no way to stop the mania that ravaged her mind and body for so long. Hattie can also appreciate the immense love her father had for her mother, in giving his life over to the protection and preservation of hers. The frustration and anger Hattie felt towards her mother as a child are released after her death, as she can remember now the moments when her mother’s love reached through the madness. She can recall several occasions where, with the viewpoints switched, she can see how hard her mother must have struggled to overcome the illness that was controlling her mind, and these insights are very movingly written. These ‘sights unseen’ show a mother who loved consistently, and whose silent frustrations and devastating grief were unseen by her children, who sadly only saw a mother who frightened and embarrassed them.

I found this a strangely hypnotic, beautifully written novel that drew me completely into the Barnes’ world. Kaye Gibbons is a wonderful writer and I am so glad I have now discovered her, even if it wasn’t by the means I wanted. However, there were aspects of this novel that didn’t quite work for me; there are a lot of family members whose behaviour is strange, in a way that I’m sure is significant; there is her Aunt Menafee and Aunt Lawrence, a married couple who hate each other, Mr Barnes, her grandfather, who dotes on Maggie and hates everyone else, and Miss Josephine, her grandfather’s sister in law, who, much to Aunt Menafee’s distress, is apparently dating the widowed Mr Barnes. These family members feature prominently in the novel, and constantly under appreciate Maggie’s illness, but seem to have little else to do outside of this, other than signify disfunction and disorder elsewhere in the family. Hattie’s brother Freddy’s seclusion from family life and anger at his mother is interesting but doesn’t go anywhere; this could have become a very interesting exploration of the differences in coping methods within dysfunctional families, but it wasn’t, and just kind of hung there, undeveloped. There is also no real conclusion, or point, to Hattie’s reverie of her mother’s life and her childhood; the last fifteen years of her mother’s life were very happy and they had reestablished a strong relationship, so it wasn’t as if Hattie hated her mother at the beginning of the novel and had grown to love her by the end.

As such, it felt oddly aimless, and I did feel a little bit confused as to the point of it, but it was still a fantastic and moving novel that I greatly enjoyed, and which swept me away into a world I have read little about before. Kaye Gibbons’ portrayal of mental illness and the devastation it wreaks is superb, and the many ‘sights unseen’ the novel explores were very thought provoking when considering how children can so completely and heartbreakingly misunderstand parents, and how anger can blind people from seeing anything of the other side. Despite its flaws, I would highly recommend it, and I’m looking forward to reading more of her work.

33 comments

  1. I agree with you about the joy of libraries – but how joyful to be able to visit and use a library in a different country! I imagine that the range of books must be so different to those in the UK…

    1. Oh Verity, the New York Public Library is amazing – they have everything you could ever want, though some of it, mostly Persephone style books, are reference only, which is a bit of a shame. You’d be in heaven here!

  2. I envy you that wonderful library!

    I was interested to read how you enjoyed this book despite its flaws. Do you think her other books will be more satisfying in terms of developing minor characters a bit more?

    I’m enjoying the first of the Cazelet books just now, and reading of the childhood traumas it portrays is quite enough angst for me at the moment, without delving into manic-depression!

    So glad you’re enjoying life in New York! I did a Facebook quiz the other day and surprised myself by choosing NY as a dream holiday location! I blame you and the books I’ve been reading recently! I’m normally very much a stay-at-home girl!🙂

    1. It is a terrific resource, and it saves me money, so I am very lucky, Penny!

      Yes, this was the most perplexing thing about it. I finished it, and thought, now…what was the POINT of this, exactly?, but despite the fact there was no discernible point, I still loved it and found the writing exquisite. So I have not been put off at all. I am going to try more of her books to see if they feel a bit more rounded so I will let you know in due course!

      I’ve never read the Cazalet books though I did see the TV adaptation many moons ago!

      Thank you, I really am! It’s such a wonderful city. Perhaps you should come on out here, Penny?! The book shops are quite something!

  3. Don’t know if you are aware of this, but Kay Gibbons has bipolar disorder and notes that she is extremely creative during her manic phases. She has suffered from this condition for a long time.

    1. No I wasn’t, until a friend emailed me this morning and informed me! I hadn’t read anything about her life, and now this book makes more sense. Thank you for bringing it up.

  4. I confess that reading such a book would be depressing to me – it is a weakness, I guess. I need to stick to more cheerful, uplifting or instructive books.

    As far as libraries go, I seem to have less and less time to read, and I am constantly seeing books in the library where I work which tempt me – it’s quite frustrating!

    1. Not a weakness at all! All of us read for different reasons and reading books that help you feel upbeat is very important – I understand!

      Libraries are tempting places…I have to restrict myself severely as the NYPL lets you take 50 out at a time! Can you imagine!😮

  5. Hi

    Thanks for another recommendation! I am so envious of you in NYC! Have been a couple of times, my fantasy would be staying in The library Hotel, have you come across this? Also, there is a wonderful bookshop called Rizzoli’s, it specialises in art books but has a varied stock of other books too. I know it’s near the “Russian Tearooms” but have forgotten the exact street, well worth a browse!

    Have fun and keep blogging!

    Jenny

    1. You are welcome, Jenny! I hope I’m only making you envious in a good way!

      I hadn’t heard of either of those places, but now I want to go and check them out! A hotel filled with books? What a dream!

      Thank you!

      1. I have to check out (pun intended) that hotel. Sounds like a home away from home for me. The Russian Tearoom was a real NY institution for many years and famous for its caviar blinis. It closed a few years ago and an attempt was made to bring it back in a more glitzy form a few years later. It didn’t work and it is closed again.

  6. Hi…. just found your website (via Cornflower) and wanted to comment on the Shirley Jackson entry….. make sure you read one of her “ordinary” books, like “Life Among the Savages” (about life with children) or”Raising Demons” (ditto!!) They are so different, and yet the same themes run through them…… how we live, who we are, what we do with and to each other. I used to teach 8th grade English, and all my students were enthralled by “Charles.”

    1. Hi Barbara! Thanks for coming by and welcome! Thank you for the advice – I have just started reading another Shirley Jackson so I will most certainly try one of her ‘normal’ ones next time for a contrast.

  7. Such a sensitive review, Rachel. Maybe the point of the novel was in part to illuminate the devastation mental illness can have on families, not only on the children and other family members, but, in this story, on Maggie as well, knowing how her illness effects her children. It was interesting to read that Kaye Gibbons is bipolar. I’ve read Ellen Foster and would encourage you to try to read it sometime.

    I love libraries. We always try to visit them when traveling. Big ones, small ones. It doesn’t matter. The Mid Manhattan branch of the NY library system must be rather large. I am so impressed that you already hold a card there having been in NYC such a short time. You are a model bibliophile.

    1. Thank you Penny. Maybe it was – I think sometimes I expect novels to be too neat and tidy, and as Sights Unseen didn’t fit that pattern of having a beginning, middle and nice packaged end, I unjustly found it lacking. I would very much like to read Ellen Foster and I am going to be placing a hold on it, as I’ve been in three times since and it’s never on the library shelf!

      I was a big library user as a child but began to become obsessed with building my own collection of books in my teens, so stopped using it. I am now becoming a real convert – I have no money to buy books and there is no point in buying them just to have to ship them at great expense back to London at the end of my year here, so the library is a necessity, and it’s a wonderful resource. I knew I’d need to join very quickly – I was a member by my third week here!!

  8. Actually, we don’t really have a limit on how much the patrons take, either. I’ve checked out big stacks of picture books to many a mother. But, fifty? That many might cause the computer to make a fuss!

  9. This novel intrigues me. Thanks for your review. I love libraries too. We have a nice one in our small town but of course, it doesn’t have a vast number of books. We can request from a library system, but it may take a while. I am so pleased that you can enjoy the NYC Library. I have never been there, but would love to visit.

    1. Thank you Janet, I’m glad you enjoyed it. I can’t believe how long it’s taken me to become an avid library user – I am now a complete convert. The NYC library system is fantastic and has everything you could ever imagine. My only complaint is that holds take a L-O-N-G time to process, but with so many books to catalogue, I’m not surprised!

      The main building of the library is beautiful – you can’t borrow books from it but you can use the reading rooms and they are quite something. Absolutely breathtaking!

  10. Oh! This could be a description of my own childhood.

    My mother was bi-polar, never understood in her lifetime, doing her best because she loved us so much. My sisters were like Freddie and disliked her very much. My father was like Maggie’s husband, loyal and supportive and exhausted.

    I would be brave enough to read this. And Amazon have copies at 1p.

    Thank you for your excellent and sensitive summary. It would have encouraged me to seek out Sights Unseen, even without the personal connection.

    Libraries are one of the things I miss here.

    1. Chrissy, how sad for your mother, and for you. I’m so sorry to hear about your childhood. It certainly does sound like this book would mirror your experiences, and I hope that you find it healing rather than distressing read. Do let me know how you get on with it.

      Thank you, you are so kind.

      Yes I should imagine libraries in your part of the world are few and far between. Though the lack of a library does provide a very good excuse as to why you need to buy new books!

  11. This sounds so good – I am always drawn to novels which depict mental illness and this sounds really interesting.
    The New York Public Library! What an opportunity. I bet you think of Breakfast at Tiffany’s as you walk through the doors. I know I would, anyway!

    1. I think you would enjoy this, Jane. One for the more ruminative reader, definitely.
      Ha! Yes! All the time I feel like I am in a movie set of some description. I found the street where You’ve Got Mail was filmed the other day and nearly wet myself, I was that excited!!!

  12. Oh dear, The Heiress emailed me a couple of days ago to say that she received the highest mark in the class on her mental health presentation. I hope, as her mother, I wasn’t the topic!

    Thank you, Rachel, for that review! You are supplying me with lots of authors to recommend to my library customers.

  13. I like Kaye Gibbons and read a number of her books years ago, though this is one I didn’t get to. My favorite is Charms for the Easy Life, which I recommend if you get the chance. I need to dip into Southern Lit more, I can see, I’ve neglected American authors for far too long.🙂

    1. Danielle, I just got that one out of the library! I’m glad it’s your favourite, as now I’m sure I’ll love it. Maybe you might like to read along with me on a few of my list books? I’m not sticking to the list religiously but I do intend on reading most of them before the year is out.

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