Book Review – Constellations by Sinéad Gleeson

“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.”

Constellations: Reflections from Life (Picador, 2019) is the debut book by Sinéad Gleeson, already an established writer of essays, short stories and poetry, editor, freelance broadcaster, and arts critic. The book, which is a collection of personal essays, won the Non-Fiction Book of the Year Award at the An Post Irish Book Awards, and it’s easy to see why. 

Often taking the body as a starting point, the essays explore a vast number of issues of universal relevance; issues which have, in some way, impacted Gleeson in her life to date, but which will resonate with so many readers. Delving into her own life story, Gleeson contemplates the wonders and perils of the human body and the female body in particular, our capacity to endure pain, what autonomy society grants us over our own bodies, sickness as a catalyst for creativity, life as a woman, motherhood and the joys and guilt it brings with it, the traditional place of Irish women in the home, love, loss, religion, death and ghosts – the scope of discussion is broad ranging, but always remaining authentic and close to home. To compile this book as a series of essays, rather than one long story, gives the writing a sense of immediacy – a sense of life being presented as just what it is, an existence composed of numerous individual, but often interlinked, moments and memories. By presenting her reflections as such, Gleeson draws us into focusing our attention entirely on the moment or issue at hand, rather than allowing it to get swallowed into what is effectively a deep sea of thoughts. 

Gleeson, from a young age, endured several challenges to her health. An evident curiosity, and acquired knowledge, as regards the body and it’s mechanics more than likely stems from all the time she spent in hospitals. Her essays reveal harrowing medical details, shared in a very steady and thorough way, as if deep analysis to gain further understanding has been a way of coping. 

Early on comes the topic of men in medicine feeling women overreact to pain. 

“I explain this to the orthopaedic doctor – this man I’ve never met before – and he does that thing I’m used to male doctors doing: he tells me I’m overreacting. A rotating blade is slicing into my flesh, but I need to calm down.”

This is, unfortunately, an experience familiar to many women; a close friend of mine, who has been in and out of hospital for years, has come up against this exact issue on numerous occasions, despite suffering the most brutal of assessments and procedures. The theme of women’s pain not being taken seriously recurs throughout the book. In ‘Where Does It Hurt? Twenty stories based on the McGill pain index’ a selection of poems explores this notion of the capacity for mere numbers, even words, to express the precise pain that an individual is feeling.

The importance and power of language recurs, particularly during Gleeson’s experiences in hospitals. She reflects not only on the issue of female patients’ pain not being taken seriously, but also the assumption that we do not fully understand what applies to our own body; by controlling her language, using medical terms to gain some sense of authority and be taken more seriously by her consultants, she finds a way to regain some control over what her body is being subjected to, under the instructions of another who observes her pain from the outside. By adapting our language we can assert ourselves in the conversation, and alter the course of what affects us. This is a lesson of value far beyond the confines of a hospital. Gleeson’s writing style is neat, clear, precise, reflecting the medical world she has spent so much time surrounded by; yet coursing with a passion that ensures each passage reverberates with vitality.

In ‘Panopticon: Hospital Visions’ the hospital sequences are written as short bursts, like snapshots bursting in and out of sleep or even consciousness; using this rhythm to capture the fragmented experience of recovery in the rush and hum of busy hospitals. These hospital stays represent a moment where life is momentarily halted, where things are uncertain; but has the greatest art not often come from the greatest suffering or restrictions? Gleeson considers how sickness can be a catalyst for creativity. When the body is held down, the mind often soars to greater heights.

“Immobility is gasoline for the imagination: in convalescence, the mind craves open spaces, dark alleys, moon landings.”

There is something empowering about Gleeson’s view of restriction, but in a practical, rather than heroic, way; a mindset which comes across very much throughout her writing as a whole. We learn that the idea for this book was born, on a whim, the day Gleeson had to reveal her leukaemia diagnosis to her parents. Probably for want of something positive and comforting to say, her mother told her years later that this is what she came out with. The book we read today is the result of this very human urge to harness, interpret and process the challenges of existence through art.

Gleeson celebrates women from history who have paved their own way, many of them also facing their own health-related obstacles: there are many names that I recognise, like Frida Kahlo or Amelia Earhart, and names that I don’t, but am now keen to know more about. A love of celebrating others’ achievements throughout history is an enriching experience, one which provides a sense of inspiration, of community, and of the evolution of the human search for meaningful fulfilment. 

Gleeson writes with passion, and with understanding, of the many issues that will resonate with women who have lived in Ireland of the last few decades; from the socio-political issues of contraception or abortion, and the women of Ireland rightfully demanding full say as to what happens to our own bodies, to the more social issues of the traditional place of the Irish woman in the home, and the archaic notion that women who don’t want children are living an incomplete life. These provide a platform for exploring the ways in which situations and ideas are imposed on women; how our ability to know, understand and express what’s best for us is doubted.

Throughout the book, Gleeson’s fascination with the human body is evident; many of the essays begin with microcosmic observations relating to the body, before moving into an investigation of the symbolism, and historical contexts, that arise on a macrocosmic level. Hair is one such feature – the cutting or shaving of her own hair from her head is something which crops up several times, creating a link between pivotal times in her life, and marking a natural progression; from here she moves into a discussion of the historical symbolism of women’s hair. Blood is also acutely considered, from her own experience of blood in hospitals – both losing it and gaining it – to the symbolism of blood in history and religion. Moving easily between her own reflections, and references to other sources on the same issues, the essays oscillate between personal experience of the moment, and a more timeless universal experience.

Constellations is a little book which packs a powerful punch, taking personal experience as a starting point before exploring an array of profound social and existential issues. The end is a fitting end to what is, in part, an ode to women, to womanhood, a cry that will resonate with women everywhere who have shared similar experiences, or know someone who has.

Music has played an important part in Gleeson’s life, and references to music are woven into many of the essays, capturing the essence of particular moments in her life. So I will leave you with a short but fitting, and uplifting, quote for the times we are living in.

“Music is a constant in times of uncertainty and chaos, a needle on an eternal groove; offering communion, connection.”

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Sinéad Gleeson has written essays, short stories and poetry, which have been featured in a number of literary journals, short story collections and anthologies. She has edited a number of short story collections, been writer in residence and a lecturer in UCD, and worked collaboratively on art performances. Previously, she worked as a journalist and broadcaster, presenting The Book Show on RTÉ Radio One for four years. She regularly moderates and chairs panel events, and is currently working on a novel.

Full bio available here

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My copy of Constellations was bought from Dubray,  and the book is also available from many local bookstores and numerous online sources. 

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