#6 (2020) Constellations by Sinéad Gleeson

When I picked up Eimear McBride’s Strange Hotel in early February I also bought a copy of Constellations by Sinéad Gleeson, which I’d been wanting to read since it was published. It did not disappoint.

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.

How do you tell the story of a life in a body, as it goes through sickness, health, motherhood? How do you tell that story when you are not just a woman but a woman in Ireland? In the powerful and daring essays in 
Constellations Sinéad Gleeson does that very thing. All of life is within these pages, from birth to first love, pregnancy to motherhood, terrifying sickness, old age and loss to death itself. Throughout this wide-ranging collection she also turns her restless eye outwards delving into work, art and our very ways of seeing. In the tradition of some of our finest life writers, and yet still in her own spirited, generous voice, Sinéad takes us on a journey that is both uniquely personal and yet universal in its resonance. Here is the fierce joy and pain of being alive.

Gleeson’s writing is an absolute joy. Her essays are deeply personal, honest reflections on all aspects of life. She focuses unflinchingly on intimate details about her dealings with illness, and I felt a sense of awe at how much she has had to navigate. At times, Gleeson’s descriptions are exceptionally vivid, which made my squeamish and over-empathetic self squirm in discomfort. Often she is matter of fact about the scars left behind, but at others the poetry of her prose softens the truth of it.

After years of medical procedures my scars are in double figures, but they too form a familiar landscape. Joints can be replaced, organs transplanted, blood transfused, but the story of our lives is still the story of one body. From ill health to heartbreak, we live inside the same skin, aware of its fragility, grappling with our mortality. (Pg. 17. This follows on directly from the extract that opens the blurb above.)

In addition to her medical meditations, Gleeson addresses motherhood throughout the book, frequently highlighting the physical impact of carrying two children and discussing how this affected her body. However, Gleeson also considers motherhood more broadly. Her chapter On the Atomic Nature of Trimesters opens wonderfully, remarking on the woefully outdated expectation that all women should be (or should want to be) mothers. I’d like to quote it all, but here’s a snippet…

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a woman in possession of a womb and a decent supply of eggs must be in want of a child. […] The urge to procreate and propagate is as arbitrary as any other act of free will, but has been imposed on women like so many other ideals of womanly perfection. Be thin! Be beautiful! Be pregnant! (Pg. 89)

Towards the end of the book, Gleeson offers twenty ‘stories’ (in scare quotations because I found them more like delicate miniature poems) based on the McGill pain index. Gleeson uses the words found in this index as a springboard for her stories, which range in subject matter from the pain of wisdom teeth to that caused by a lumbar puncture. Again, not for the faint hearted!

Possibly the most delicious part of the book is the final chapter, A Non-Letter for my Daughter (named for a warrior queen). It’s a poem, a letter…call it what you will… It’s beautiful and moving in so many ways. It was the sort of thing I read and immediately wanted to copy out and send off to my favourite souls. I’ll leave you with a particularly poignant stanza and the suggestion that you buy a copy of Constellations at your earliest convenience!

Don’t be afraid,
Don’t be fearful.
They are not the same thing.

(Pg. 240)

#1 (2020): Shrill by Lindy West

My first read of the year was Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman by Lindy West.

From a painfully shy childhood in which she tried, unsuccessfully, to hide her big body and even bigger opinions; to her public war with stand-up comedians over rape jokes; to her struggle to convince herself, and then the world, that fat people have value; to her accidental activism and never-ending battle royale with Internet trolls, Lindy narrates her life with a blend of humor and pathos that manages to make a trip to the abortion clinic funny and wring tears out of a story about diarrhea.

The book is brilliantly written — honest, funny, and heartbreaking in parts. I found aspects of it particularly relatable, and I think that anyone who has disliked or felt betrayed their body will find themselves nodding in recognition at what West has to say.

West discusses her career as a journalist throughout the book, and frequently cites instances where she had to pull up colleagues on their double standards with regards to fat-shaming. I found it eye-opening but, at the same time, unsurprising that she encountered such intense prejudice just because of how she looked. Like Emilie Pine’s Notes to Self, which I discussed here, Shrill tackles challenging — and often ‘taboo’ — issues head on. I believe that it’s vital that these discussions keep taking place and that marginalised voices are heard. Kudos to West (and Pine) for having the courage to speak out. More, please!

Lindy West’s second book The Witches Are Coming is out now (and the friend who bought me Shrill assures me that it is equally excellent).