‘Here is the fierce joy and pain of being alive.’ So reads the last line of the blurb on the back of Sinéad Gleeson’s Constellations her collection of personal essays reflecting on her experiences and what she and others can learn from them. Despite their “personal” nature, Gleeson’s brings us to a point of universal understanding that is a testament to her skills as a writer and her qualities as a human being
We are very lucky in Ireland to have so many authors penning memoirs and essays putting a narrative to broader themes and events that have shaped the psyche of our nation. Emilie Pine, Lynn Ruanne and Arnold Thomas Fanning’s recent books are a testament to this literary movement. And it is part of a proud heritage. (for just one example: Edna O’Brien, whose Country Girls is Dublin’s One City, One Book for 2019, is a perfect testament to this) Sinéad Gleeson, and the Constellations collection will stand proudly beside these as a powerful work,
From the beginning of the book you feel the pain of a tortured childhood, not unhappy, but desperately painful, as a degenerative bone condition emerges that will continue to haunt the writer long past its diagnosis, and the first essay in the collection. The encompassing story of religion in Ireland, of a devout childhood brought upon the surrounding demonstration of faith that we all felt in this country. The essays move on to discuss more and tell even more than that. The writer’s soul is laid bare, and the brutal honesty with which she betrays her own thoughts moves the reader further. The feeling of being a parent, the desire to become one, the horror of the failing of the human mind, and of body, is woven through these essays of intense intelligence. The essay entitled “Our Mutual Friend” in particular affected me and even now when writing, months after the first reading, I feel those emotions welling up in me again.
There is a great amount to reflect upon among the pages, and I often found myself pausing in reading to consider what was being said. This is the mark of a good essayist, as the prose worked to allow for these moments, to give the reader pause before taking it up once more. Her style is tight and witty, fun and tragedy are propelled forward alongside a real-life irony that cannot be overlooked.
This collection isn’t wholly about feminism, motherhood, grief, or pain; it is a book about Sinéad Gleeson. It is a book about human reactions and experience. And it displays a courage of character that endears the reader in a way that perhaps, words cannot grasp. I can barely scratch the surface of all this book is about. And for me, that’s the point of it; these subjects. They, and their accompanying essays, are the constellations in the night sky: infinite.
Infinite in their capacity to express; as to, is a human being. Never just one facet, but a multitude of them, every person broken down into many parts of diverging opinions, ideas, and experiences. What these essays perhaps display the most, is how many times these things align with another person. And helps you realise that despite all our differences, we are actually the very same. This paradox is the nature of being human. And its understanding, is the true nature of empathy.
(c) Emmet James Driver
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