Non-fiction – hardcover; Picador; 304 pages; 2019. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.
Irish essay collections reviewed on this blog are like London buses — none for ages, then two come along at once. Yesterday I wrote about Ian Maleleny’s Minor Monuments; today I want to tell you about Sinéad Gleeson’s Constellations: Reflections from Life.
Before I begin, I also want to tell you a bit about how I first came to know Sinéad. Back in 2007, when my blog had been going for about three years, I decided to challenge myself to read 12 classic works of Irish literature based on this poster, which anyone who’s ever visited Dublin will have seen in all the tourist shops.
Sinéad, who had a very successful arts blog I had been following for a while, left a comment, politely pointing out that that poster annoyed her because there were no women writers on it. This was something I hadn’t even noticed — at the time I never considered the gender of the authors I read — and it was a bit of an eye-opener.
As it turns out I never did complete my challenge, and Sinéad and I became firm online friends, both on this blog, her (now defunct) blog and on Twitter (and, much later, Instagram).
Since then she’s become a broadcaster, reviewer and editor — no surprise that the first book she edited, The Long Gaze Back, was an anthology of stories by Irish women writers, followed up by The Glass Shore: Short Stories by Women Writers from the North of Ireland.
In March this year we got to meet face to face for the first time when her debut essay collection was featured as part of a Picador Showcase event. She was as delightful and as enthusiastic and as friendly and as warm as I had come to expect from our online exchanges.
Constellations: Reflections from Life gathers together 14 extraordinary, life-affirming essays, some of which have been published elsewhere (for example, Blue Hills and Chalk Bones, about Sinéad’s childhood illness and visit to Lourdes, was published in the online edition of Granta magazine in 2016, and an edited extract of Our Mutual Friend, about the death of an ex-boyfriend, was published in The Guardian a couple of months ago) with which I was familiar.
I have come to think of all the metal in my body as artificial stars, glistening beneath the skin, a constellation of old and new metal. A map, a tracing of connections and a guide to looking at things from different angles.
It might be stretching it a bit to say the essays are inter-linked, but they definitely share common themes — the body, illness and how the relationship between the two shapes our identity — and all are highly personal accounts of issues and events Sinéad herself has experienced, including adolescent arthritis, leukaemia, hip replacement, motherhood, love, grief — and the disdain of male doctors.
The body – its presence, its weight – is both an unignorable entity and routinely taken for granted. I started paying particular attention to mine in the months after turning thirteen.
Her prose throughout is eloquent, lyrical and, occasionally, visceral. It is moving, often poignant, but free from self-pity. She knows how to craft a story — most essays in this collection have a powerful punch, the sort that makes you feel bereft or emotionally wrung out or simply reeling by the time you get to the end.
I actually read Constellations in one sitting, unable to put it down (though, to be fair, it was a rather wonderful distraction from painting my hallway, a DIY task I regretted as soon as I started). By the final page I was a bit of a wreck, the cumulative effect of reading about so many potent experiences, of what it is to live with illness and the battles to be endured when you are a woman struggling to be heard.
It is fair to say I loved every essay in this book, but my two favourites are right at the end. Second Mother, about Sinéad’s godmother, is a devastating account about the impact of dementia on a person and their loved ones; A Non-Letter to My Daughter, is an eloquent poem, fierce in nature but wise and brilliant, too, about being a woman in this world, the kind of message I wish I’d been given as a teenager about to embark on an independent life.
I write this to you daughter,
Place these words in your hands,
To help you understand
The way the world will be
Because you are a girl
In essence, I’m not sure this review can ever do justice to such a fine, wide-ranging collection of essays. All I can do is urge you to read it. But I’m not the only one saying this. Booker Prize-winner and Irish writer extraordinaire Anne Enright, who describes Sinéad as an “absolute force”, says “If you want to know where passion and tenacity are born, read this book.”
If next year’s Wellcome Prize wasn’t paused I’m sure it’d be a shoo-in!