2019, 242 p.
It’s strange that the book that annoyed me most this year, Lee Kofman’s Imperfect, and one of the best books I’ve read this year, Constellations deal with very similar subject matter. Like Lee Kofman, Sinéad Gleeson had a childhood marked by illness, and then six months to the day after her wedding, she was diagnosed with leukemia. With a major operation to fuse her severely arthritic hipjoints, she (like Kofman) would have her share of scars, and she, too, has considered other women whose bodies have betrayed them. But where I felt that Kofman’s book was self-indulgent, bitter and almost voyeruistic in its observations on her own and other peoples’ flaws, Gleeson’s book is deeply human and ultimately optimistic. Reflecting on the metal implants, stitches and surgical interventions on her own body, she writes
I have come to think of all the metal in my body as artificial stars, glistening beneath the skill, a constellation of old and new metal. A map, of tracing connections and a guide to looking at things from different angles. (p. 17)
And so, with this title, each self-contained chapter is marked out by a star map of the constellations that reference, often obliquely, the content. While certainly some of the chapters deal with her illnesses, she ranges further into a consideration of motherhood, friendship and Alzheimers. This collection of stories looks forward as well as back, with a concern not about the ‘body surface’ as Kofman would call it, but an honest and deeply compassionate appreciation of – and she does appreciate, value, honour – the person inside.
She uses interesting constructs to structure her narratives. In ‘60,000 Miles of Blood’ – the length of all the blood vessels in the human body- different sections of her writing are titled by blood group: A+, A-, B+, O etc. In this story she reflects on her own diagnosis of leukemia, blood donation, periods, Blood of Christ, DNA. In ‘Where Does It Hurt?’ she uses the adjectives in the McGill pain index to verbalise pain (Hot/Burning/Scalding vs. Wretched/Blinding) as the headings for small reflections on pain, some in verse, some in prose. ‘Panopticon: Hospital Visions’ is actually written in hospital, a series of very short paragraphs, observing the ward around her.
It’s not all illness. In ‘On the Atomic Nature of Trimesters’ and ‘The Moons of Motherhood’, she writes about pregnancy, birth and early motherhood. She observes other people and their relationships to their bodies- Frida Khalo, Lucy Grearly and Jo Spence in a chapter similar and yet so different to Kofman’s work. There’s a chapter about the Irish referendum campaign to amend the constitutional ban on abortion (which I heard about in a podcast) and she gives us one of the most insightful and respectful stories about Alzheimers that I have ever read in ‘Second Mother’.
These are beautiful stories, detached and yet deeply human, written in crystalline prose. With Kofman’s Imperfect, I could feel myself taking a step back from the author, not wanting to associate with her. My response could not have been more different with this book. Here is a breathing, loving, compassionate human – ‘body surface’ and deeper – and one that I wanted to stand closer beside, to hear more.
My rating: 9.5 /10
Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library