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.