Sinéad Gleeson’s memoir Constellations explores the relationship between our bodies and our identity. In a series of linked essays, she writes powerfully about her own experiences and what they tell us about the embodied lives of all women, particularly Irish women.
Gleeson has been doubly unlucky. As an adolescent she had a form of arthritis which meant painful surgery and using crutches (and sometimes a wheelchair) just at the age when people are most self-conscious about their body, and most eager to join in with friends. Later, just months after marrying, she was diagnosed with leukaemia.
I found the essays about illness to be particularly moving. The writing is lyrical and visceral and without self-pity. She captures the loss of autonomy, the battles with professionals to be heard, the detachment from the everyday world, the strange acoustics and enforced intimacies of hospital life.
She considers the relationship between women and fertility, linking her own hopes and fears about being able to have children, with the way women are defined by their role as mothers. She broadens this to consider the struggle for Irish women to have legal access to abortion, and the injustices of the past when women were institutionalised for becoming pregnant outside marriage.
She explores the other ways women have been confined, contrasting her own experiences of freedom to travel and to be educated with the poverty and limited horizons of her grandmother’s generation. She argues that the visions for which her grandmother was famous might have been a reaction to this confinement, a way to envisage a bigger, stranger universe.
What Constellations brought home to me is how serious illness sets someone apart. It is more than the absence of health, experiences missed, it is a whole other state of being, of loneliness and pain and otherness. Worse, it is a state that many medical professionals (especially if the doctor is a man, and the patient is a woman) still dismiss.
Constellations gives a vivid and vital insight into living with illness and how the bodies we inhabit make us who we are.
I received a copy of Constellations from the publisher via Netgalley.
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