Winner of the prize for Non-fiction Book of the Year at the 2020 Irish Book Awards, Sinéad Gleeson’s Constellations is a series of essays and vignettes about living with chronic pain and what happens when the body starts to give up.
It’s a book primarily about the importance of the body and how it takes centre stage when things start to go wrong – we’re reminded at the beginning that “The body is an afterthought”. However, it’s not just about the body – it’s about the role it has – particularly the female body – in society. Throughout, Gleeson takes us away from personal recollection to remind us of the sexism that surrounds the physical, such as the horrific notion of a mother having to be “churched” after giving birth so as to be seen to be clean enough to attend mass.
The structure is loosely chronological, opening with the painful recollections of an ill thirteen-year-old, when, like all teenagers, Gleeson is self-conscious enough without being marked out as different by a wheelchair on a school trip to Lourdes. The meshing of detailed, technical, medical language with recollections of religious pilgrimages and holy relics instantly builds a sense of confusion – and a sharp note of criticism at the Catholic church.
The titles of each chapter make up parts of the body, like stars make up the galaxy. In many, Gleeson draws deeply on cultural references to strengthen her message by expanding her points of reference. An essay on the connotations of hair for a woman links her own personal experiences of shaving her head at 16 and losing her hair through chemotherapy to Jo March, pre-Raphaelite manes and those women shorn post D Day as a humiliation. The point is clear – even a woman’s air is policed by a patriarchal society.
As many of the chapters swirl around experiences of childbirth and motherhood, there is a lot of focused anger about the treatment of women and their bodies. However, there is a lot of beauty in these essays – the prose is particularly beautiful when talking about her own children, such as when she describes her newborn son “his hands coiled like a secret” and her daughter as “the comma of her body uncurls, her skin darkens and she goes limp” or when she explains the wonder of microchimerism when a mother and baby share cells as the baby’s cells travel back up the placenta to stay in the mother’s body.
The essays also range in style, moving from the traditional narrative form to the short prose poems of different hospital experiences in ‘Panopticon: Hospital Visions’ to the twenty poems based on the McGill Pain Index and finishing with the beautiful poem ‘Non-letter to my Daughter.’
This is a book about strength – not just of the writer, but of women in general. It’s filled with accounts and recounts and anecdotes of women showing strength – artists like Frida Kahlo, adventurers and relatives. There is so much love, tenderness and admiration – but also a clear exhortation that change needs to happen – especially in Ireland where “The history of subjugation for Irish women is a long and complex one, connected to both past and present”. Hopefully books like this will change things – especially if we act on Gleeson’s final message to her daughter and daughters everywhere:
“Don’t worry about what will happen next.
Assume there is goodness all around
unless there is not,
and even then,
be the goodness.”