In Kaye Gibbons’ SIGHTS UNSEEN, Harriet Barnes recalls her tumultuous relationship with her mentally ill mother, Maggie. Set in the 1990’s after Maggie has been sane for a number of years, Harriet’s story unfolds in flashbacks from the 1960’s. Through these flashbacks, Harriet tries to make sense of the circumstances of her mother’s manic depression and its effects on her and her family.
Harriet’s flashbacks underscore her strange childhood. She spends most of her youth feeling as if she has no mother, particularly as her mother spins further out of control into mania. She finds herself unable to understand the mental illness or her mother’s incapacity to care for anyone, even herself. Reared essentially by her housekeeper, Pearl, Harriet spends most of her childhood being alternately overwhelmed and ignored by her mother.
Maggie creates a brilliant splash of drama and activity in this novel. Though her manic episodes are retold from Harriet’s point of view, many of them end up being humorous rather than frightening. Gibbons takes great care in trying to re-create the mind of one who is mentally ill. Because of its dramatic effect in the text, however, Maggie’s mania threatens to take over the novel, eventually subsuming Harriet’s perspectives, even as she tries to tell her own story. Although the novel proposes to be about the building of the mother/daughter relationship between the two women, Maggie’s problems create too much drama for the text. As a result, there is no time left to explore the complexities of the rebuilding which Harriet and Maggie must do after Maggie is healed.
Although SIGHTS UNSEEN does present a realistic picture of a family struggling to deal with mental illness in the 1950’s and 1960’s, Gibbons fails to adequately present the specific problems this illness would create between mother and daughter, the avowed purpose of the novel. Gibbons seems to want to do too much in this novel; consequently, Maggie’s mental illness takes precedence over the exploration of Maggie and Harriet’s reconciliation.
Sources for Further Study
Atlanta Journal Constitution. September 10, 1995, p. M3.
Los Angeles Times. October 9, 1995, p. E5.
The New York Times Book Review. C, September 24, 1995, p. 30.
The New Yorker. LXXI, August 21, 1995, p. 115.
Publishers Weekly. CCXLII, June 5, 1995, p. 48.
Southern Living. XXX, December, 1995, p. 88.
Times-Picayune. October 1, 1995, p. E6.
USA Today. November 2, 1995, p. D4.
When Kaye Gibbons’ Ellen Foster (1987) was published, critics hailed her protagonist’s youthful, abrasive voice as a new addition to southern literature. Since then, Gibbons’ novels have offered her readers glimpses into other haunting interiors, primarily showing psychological tensions between southern women.
In Sights Unseen, her fifth novel, Gibbons continues to explore familial terrain using first-person narration, this time in an attempt to uncover the memories of Harriet Barnes, only daughter of a manic-depressive mother. Told from Harriet’s perspective as an adult, the novel explores the relationship between the emotionally neglected Harriet and her manic mother, Maggie. Though the novel conveys the social stigma of mental illness, in a larger sense the novel fails to illustrate the fragile mother- daughter relationship. Furthermore, the use of first-person narration, so effective in Gibbons’ earlier novels, seems largely problematic rather than useful in this novel.
Sights Unseen opens in the early 1990’s, some time after Maggie has died in a freak accident. Most of the action of the piece, however, occurs in flashbacks from around and before 1967, the year Maggie was hospitalized and diagnosed with manic depression. Harriet’s retelling of her life with a manic-depressive mother and the often freakish childhood events that shaped her adult life is reminiscent of Gibbons’ earlier narrators, particularly Ellen of Ellen Foster , who, like Harriet, had to adapt to often horrific...
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