Entertainment Books

Thursday 22 August 2019

Constellations by Sinéad Gleeson: a finely judged mix of revelation and restraint

Essays: Constellations

Sinéad Gleeson

Picador, hardback, 304 pages, €18.99

An exploration: The stark facts of Sinead Gleeson's medical past permeate many of her essays. Photo: Brid O'Donovan
An exploration: The stark facts of Sinead Gleeson's medical past permeate many of her essays. Photo: Brid O'Donovan

Joanne Hayden

Through her work as a journalist, broadcaster and editor, Sinéad Gleeson has become a well-known advocate for women writers, particularly for championing new and forgotten voices. In Constellations, her beautifully realised first collection of essays, she puts the stories of her own body at the centre, journeying inwards, into blood, bones and DNA, as well as outwards, into literature, music, art, science and social history.

Visceral and intellectual, the essays use her formative experiences of illness, motherhood and loss as a springboard to examine fundamental questions about what it means to be sick, what it means to be alive and what it means to be a woman, especially in Ireland with its inglorious track record when it comes to women's rights.

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The stark facts of her medical history permeate many of the pieces. From the age of 13, she has lived with the symptoms of monoarticular arthritis, "chalky bones," resulting in interventions including childhood surgeries and 10 weeks in a cast that covered two thirds of her body. One of the book's most harrowing passages describes a doctor trying to remove the cast with a saw.

"A rotating blade is slicing into my flesh, but I need to calm down. The room fills up with screaming. Me, as ventriloquist throwing pain across the room." The doctor demands that her crying mother leave.

Years later, six months after she got married, she was diagnosed with a rare and aggressive type of leukaemia. She recovered but the collection is shot through with the reverberations of this shock, with an awareness of her own mortality and the memory of loved ones who have died. But there is no self-indulgence here, no sensationalism, no martyrdom, no attempt to force the narrative into one of adversity overcome. Rather, without flinching, she investigates her own illnesses and in doing so tests the possibilities and limitations of language.

In its exploration of different kinds of pain - psychic as well as physical - the collection is reminiscent of Christina Crosby's memoir, A Body, Undone, which chronicles the writer's paralysis following a biking accident. Like Crosby, Gleeson is relentlessly clear-eyed, has expansive references at the ready and articulates what seems barely articulable, but Constellations is not a memoir and Gleeson sits easily alongside Eula Biss, Maggie Nelson and other significant contemporary essayists in how thoroughly and freshly she interrogates her ideas.

She plays with and pushes her chosen form, her writing a finely judged mixture of revelation and restraint - intimate, honed and resonant with apposite juxtapositions and imagery. At the end of 'Hair' she describes telling her daughter about her own night plaits: "the sea of hair in the morning, the wavy locks like a tide-departed sand."

Some of the essays - 'A Non-Letter to My Daughter' and 'Where Does it Hurt?' which comprises "twenty stories based on the McGill pain index" - are shaped like poems. Italicised segments that look like a poem interrupt the devastating essay 'Our Mutual Friend,' about her former boyfriend who introduced her to her husband and who, at the age of 24, was killed in a fall.

Her resilience and wisdom, the sustenance she found in words and art - in Frida Kahlo for example, who often painted her own maimed body - shine through and Constellations is the opposite of gloomy. Nevertheless, its stories of a girl and young woman trying to assert autonomy over her body in a country whose constitution until very recently denied women that autonomy can be extremely upsetting. In this respect, and in others, the collection taps into collective experience and collective memory.

Through the prism of female adventurers, 'The Adventure Narrative' reflects on the obstacles faced by maverick women and on the "distinction in reverence" afforded to male and female writers.

'The Haunted Haunting Women' examines the "psychic seam" in her family while also documenting the life of her grandmother and by extension millions of other women who had few opportunities - Irish mothers occupying "the top slot while holding the least amount of power".

"When I think of our history," she writes, "these are the women I see. The unseen, rage humming in the air. Their lack of choice a collective lament."

Like this essay, the collection as a whole is a genuine and necessary reclamation. Perfectly titled, its pieces coexist with startling - with mesmerising - effect.

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