In just the last few years the true story of women has accelerated with breathtaking pace, buoyed by a new and gleeful audacity. After decades of slow advancement, with occasional opportunistic leaps, the #MeToo movement has emboldened female writers, artists and activists to call out and push back against every example of the male-imposed humiliation, suppression, exploitation, objectification, betrayal, deceit and guilt (and that’s just a handful of the formidable nouns I could have used) which has characterised women’s lives over the globe for millennia.
The result is a still-snowballing, taboo-busting, unapologetic explosion of rage, relief, and sorrow. And there’s no question there are times when humour has been jettisoned and tensions have arisen between the genders. Unexpected allies have also been created however, and there is a growing army of good souls united in the quest to look the devil in the eye and persuade him to change his story.
This spurt of investigation and revelation has brought much pain, as we mourned the millions of women whose voices were never heard, whose potential never acknowledged – including our own mothers, and grandmothers. However the scavenging of history and belated championing of some of those discarded women has also been a joyful, heartening process. There have been many terrific books engaged in that work in the last couple of years, and Irish writer Sinéad Gleeson’s Constellations is one of the most courageous, subversive and imaginative of them all.
She puts the body at the forefront of female experience, both private and political. And she is more aware of its abilities and limitations than most
Gleeson’s essay collection is primarily a forensic study of the (her) female body, written with a combination of frankness, confession and graphic detail which might have struggled to find an audience (maybe even a publisher) five years ago. She puts the body at the forefront of female experience, both private and political. And she is more aware of its abilities and limitations than most; since a diagnosis of crippling monoarticular arthritis at 13, she has spent decades fighting her misbehaving blood and bones, including a battle with leukaemia in her twenties, early menopause and two difficult pregnancies.
In total, more than 92,000 people have sold The Big Issue since 1991 to help themselves work their way out of poverty – more than could fit into Wembley Stadium.
The no-nonsense descriptions of her brutal treatment, and accompanying mental trauma, make for unforgettable reading. But Gleeson’s writing goes well beyond reportage, and that is what separates this book from its peers. Her prose is shockingly vivid and poetic at the same time. So “illness is an outpost: lunar, Arctic, difficult to reach.” Her first baby “a unique note, a song between us.” What’s particularly profound is that it is the poetry, more than the literal fact, which is especially revealing, most directly connected to personal experience.
There is also an ostensibly improbable backdrop of ghosts, myths and the supernatural in Gleeson’s frontline journalism, even in her accounts of the most gruesome of medical procedures. “Irish history and folklore is rooted in stories of spirits and malevolent beings,” she writes. “We soak up stories of haunted souls and feel the dead walking among us.” This surprise element is one of the book’s many delights.
Gleeson’s Irishness is a crucial element of Constellations’ unusual power
Gleeson’s Irishness is a crucial element of Constellations’ unusual power. Writing in a country so long dominated by the Catholic Church and its demonising of unmarried mothers and divorcees, which not long ago was stealing ‘fallen’ women’s babies from them, and only recently legalised abortion, it’s impossible to avoid the question of the female body as a battleground. She discusses the infamous Magdalen laundries and tracks the history of abortion law in the Republic, but what sticks is the terrible individual stories of a system which she finally has hope is coming to an end.
And it is hope which overrides fear in this book’s moving conclusion, a ‘non-letter’ to Gleeson’s daughter in which the mother advises her child to “assume there is goodness all around”. And if there isn’t; “be the goodness”. Hallelujah to that.
A word from Sinéad Gleeson
I’m hugely honoured that Constellations is the Big Issue Book of the Year – thank you so much. I’m often asked what my essays are about, and like most essays, they’re not singular, but one of the central themes of the book is empathy. We live in a world where many of us forget to take stock of what we have, not what we think we’re missing. To have an able body, to have a home, to be safe, loved and happy. My book asks what constitutes a good life, a long life, a happy life, and how fate can interrupt our lives for good, but also bad.
I write about health and illness, but also about recovery and gratitude. One of the joys of this book is hearing readers’ stories about their lives, the trials and sadnesses, but also how connected we all are. The Big Issue does all of these things too – reminding us to be grateful, to count our blessings and to remember to be kind to others whose lives might not be in the same places as ours. Thank you for this honour, but more so, thank you for highlighting issues and
amplifying the voices and stories of people who often don’t get to be heard.