In her essay titled ‘60,000 Miles of Blood’, Sinéad Gleeson offers a humble explanation as to her collection of personal essays when she says “To commit to writing, or art, is to commit to living. A self-imposed deadline as a means of continued existence”. This provides the reader with an early indication of the kind of selfless voice emerging from this collection of personal essays; an unassuming and gentle voice yet not without a steady intensity of expression and form.
The personal essay has been gaining popularity in recent years and when I saw the hype surrounding this particular piece of work, my heart sank a little as pieces rarely live up to their reputation, in my experience. Sinéad Gleeson physically breaks in the first essay when the synovial fluid in her left hip ‘began to evaporate like rain’. Her bones began to disintegrate from the age of thirteen and for many years after, her body was faced with almost insurmountable challenges. It would be very easy to present this character to a reader with an air of pitiful sorrow but Gleeson somehow manages to write an entire collection of essays about her life, while structuring them around the lives of others. In doing so, Sinéad Gleeson paints pain, hurt, heartbreak and grief while supporting us all the time with uplifting anecdotal moments of strength and optimism, such care does she take of the reader.
Gleeson’s insight and keen sense of observation is extraordinary and I don’t say that lightly. She categorises blood by each blood type and in doing so acknowledges the 70,500 millilitres of donated blood in her body, property of the unsung heroes who donated blood through the Irish Blood Transfusion Service. This blood courses through her veins, lending strength to her body, linking her to the many people who selflessly donated their blood. Gleeson reminds us how easily blood is spilled, a nudge to war and senseless violence; blood is lost through childhood scrapes and clumsy teenage shaving, so important and yet blood is sold, blood is a commodity. Her own blood carried a cancer, derived from the marrow of her bones, a heart wrenching realisation for the reader following her struggle with her hip bones and her many bloody transfusions.
This heartbreak reverberates through ‘Our Mutual Friend’, where Gleeson recalls the unexpected death of her friend Rob. He was the boy who tenderly held her heart, on whose memory her life is now built, cushioned by the mutual love and respect shared. This essay was beautiful and it hurt. It hurt me personally. We take life for granted, certainly the lives of those around us and while we are young, the expectation that others will just be there is something we take for granted. A line is drawn in the sand between before them and after them and for a long time, that is how we measure time. Sinéad Gleeson handled this memory so delicately and so bravely shared this private archive with us in order to make this of public importance, thus allowed the personal and the public to combine.
This theme of the personal and the public sets the remainder of the text alight and while her voice remains humble, it grows in intensity as the text progresses. She speaks of the role of women in our society, of the expectation and judgement experienced by women around abortion, hair shaving and breastfeeding. Her words resonate so clearly, yet she herself remains small and almost insignificant, a deliberate ploy by Sinéad Gleeson so that we hear the message and not the person. Despite these intentions however, an almost celestial image glows from this work, that of a woman, scarred and rebuilt with a solid determination to grow, absorbing the scars and reading them like braille, a pathwork of lessons and stories. I read this in one sitting and I feel that was a mistake, as some of the essays lost resonance with me. However perhaps that’s correct, no two people read the same book in the same way and that’s as it should be.
(c) Dymphna Nugent
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