Book Review: Sights Unseen by Kaye Gibbons


Rating: B+/ People who know me know that mental illness has been a big part of my life since I was very little. I guess you could say that you don’t choose mental illness, mental illness chooses you. As someone with severe depression and an anxiety disorder, I kept thinking about in what ways the Barnes family from Sights Unseen were like my own family and in what ways they were different. In caring for somebody with a mental disorder like my parents have cared for me, mental illness becomes an inexorable part of your life, whether you like it or not. Love and frustration go hand in hand.

Maggie Barnes, husband of Frederick Barnes Sr., mother of Frederick Barnes Jr. and Hattie Barnes, is a complete mess suffering from Bipolar Disorder and the multitude of issues that go along with it. There’s always some kind of drama going on in the Barnes household, orchestrated by the manic-depressive Maggie. Hattie, the now-adult narrator, decides to tell the story of her mother and her illness’ effect on their family long after Maggie has died of natural causes.

Right away, you can see that the Barnes family dynamic is very ‘off.’ Frederick Sr.’s dad, who is very formally referred to even by his grandchildren as Mr. Barnes, is a wealthy man who enables Maggie’s mania by paying for her shopping sprees. Maggie seems fonder of her father-in-law than she does of her own husband. In fact, it is implied at one point that she might be in love with him. As Maggie fluctuates between mania and suicidality  and depression, her mild-mannered husband tries to keep a grip and her kids compensate in very different ways.

Freddy Jr. becomes hyper-focused on his schoolwork and distances himself from the craziness of his family, and Hattie retreats into a fantasy she has created for herself of the ideal family, a family where everyone is ‘okay.’ I read this book in one night, almost one sitting. I found the writing straightforward yet compelling and beautiful, and I found my own pain at being ‘the sick one’ in my family reflected within these pages.

I usually prefer books where the person with the mental illness tells their own story, instead of a family member, but I enjoyed this novel anyway. I was shocked by how completely self-centered and oblivious to other peoples’ suffering Maggie Barnes was, even when she was comparatively well. I wondered at times whether she had a dash of Borderline Personality Disorder to give her Manic Depression a little extra kick.

She never seemed to acknowledge just how much damage she was inflicting on the people around her, instead withdrawing into her own delusions. I liked and was invested in most if not all of the characters, especially Freddy Jr. I am not sure whether he was supposed to be likable or not, but he struck a personal note with me because he seemed like almost a doppelganger of my brother, James.

I’ve always found James’ way of coping with our family problems strange, but this novel gave me hope that his odd habits were not so crazy considering the situation after all. I have never lived with Bipolar Disorder, but I saw traces of my life within the pages of this book anyway. The only thing I didn’t like about Sights Unseen was the ending. It tied things together just a little too neatly for my taste.

I’ll try not to spoil it for you, but I cannot find any similarity between the histrionic, hysterical mother of the beginning of the book and the mother of the end. It just seemed a little too happy. I’m not saying the mother has to be sent to an institution for the rest of her life or kill herself for the book to be realistic. But the way the Sights Unseen ended didn’t feel particularly plausible, at least not as honest and real as the rest of the book.

Sights Unseen is often a sad story, but it is not entirely devoid of hope. I sometimes found myself relating to the issues in the novel, while at the same time feeling pleased that I was not nearly as crazy as the mother in the book. As a mentally ill person, you compare and contrast; it makes you feel good if you’re not even the craziest person in the room. I don’t know why it works that way, but it does.

I read on Wikipedia that Kaye Gibbons has Bipolar Disorder, which gives the book a personal quality. It said that Gibbons wrote her first book, Ellen Foster, on a manic jag, and that made me think about the occasional gifts that come with having Asperger’s and OCD, the thorough memory for book, film, music, and television trivia, the ability to apply insane focus when I’m writing something. I wrote my first novella in a very similar state, and sent copies to friends to almost unanimous acclaim. A couple of months later, I wanted to burn it.

    Sights Unseen shows how mental illness doesn’t just effect the person who suffers from it, it also effects everyone who loves them and even the people who come occasionally into their lives. I enjoyed Gibbons’ frank, unsentimental writing. There were no pretensions or frills, but the style still managed to be literary and, despite the lack of sentimentality, moving.

I started Ellen Foster months ago and even though it was extremely short, almost a novella, I just couldn’t seem to get into it. Now I think I’ll try to read it again. Sights Unseen (I’m not sure why it’s called that) is valuable for it’s honest portrait of mental illness and a family in crisis, and it’s not afraid to show just how hard these illnesses are for the sufferer as well as the family. I think it’s a story that a lot of people will be able to relate to, and not just people who live with someone with Bipolar disorder.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s