Essay collections are one of my favorite literary forms. I enjoy diving into someone else’s life for a couple pages, and then into someone else’s, or into a different point in time, or a different perspective. It’s escapism on high. There’s a certain comfort in exploring someone else’s consciousness when your own thoughts have become too loud to hear. Gleeson’s Constellations is an essay compilation par excellence, and – despite being filled with essays concerning her own life – far from a memoir. Through fourteen of Gleeson’s writing, we move through her life, through hospital beds, through motherhood, through grottos and onto rooftops. Still, there is something so universally relatable to the author’s words that Constellations also feels like a homecoming of sorts.
Most of Gleeson’s writing compiled in this collection focuses on bodies and our relationship with them. The vessels that we’re trapped in, that limit who we are, who we are perceived to be, what we can achieve; the vessels and their disappearing and the nuclear implosions they leave behind once gone. Constellations is a tale of sadness, but also of comfort and of making peace.
Reading this book was as mesmerizing as it was uncomfortable. Throughout the years, I have negotiated my own issues with the healthcare system, mostly because young women’s health issues aren’t taken seriously. The healthcare system is tailored to the male body, and unless you’re cis-male and able-bodied, you better have the fight in you to maneuver your way through it. I endured years of suffering and I continue to be affected by the consequences of doctors telling me that all I needed to do was lose some weight and deal with it, everybody else is suffering too. Throughout my adolescence, I have lived with a blanket of guilt for not being good enough, for not being as capable as everyone else, for not being like everyone else, because I was made to believe I was whiny and need to stop complaining. I got diagnosed at the age of 26, the first diagnosis of a myriad of comorbidities to follow, caused by year-long neglect. When I left my new doctor’s office, I spent almost two hours crying in my car. I cried because I was relieved, because it wasn’t all my fault; I cried because I was angry, because no-one believed me; I cried because of the unfairness of it all, how the odds were stacked against me from the get-go. It took me another year to realize that I wasn’t alone, that my suffering wasn’t an unfortunate case fallen through the cracks. Another year to realize that our healthcare is systematically failing anyone that is not cis-male and able-bodied and god, did it make me angry. Being sick is incredibly lonely and Gleeson’s Constellations is a warm reminder that millions of other people are dealing with the same issues as I am. It might be a wake-up call for some, the realization that they’re not alone, that their issues are valid, regardless of what they are being told. At least I hope it is.
Despite hitting the notes on a personal level for me, it is impossible to elude Gleeson’s delicate, sublime writing. Some essays weren’t as relatable to me – simply because they covered experiences that I did not live through. And still, I tremendously enjoyed reading, for instance, Gleeson’s essay The Moons of Motherhood and its honest, no-frills approach to the topic. Especially her writing on loss and grief hit home a bit closer than I was comfortable with. That’s the essence, though, isn’t it? Leaving your comfort zone and replacing denial with contention, as uncomfortable as it may be.
As much as I love Constellations, it also makes an excellent point of why I am such a strong advocate for content notes in books. Gleeson’s writing is as intense as it is mentally taxing and I wish I had had the option of deciding whether now was the right time for me to face the topics brought up in the following chapter. I understand that some people feel like content notes are spoilers, but I fail to see how a page in the very back of the book with a content note overview is hurting anyone. I really hope that content notes will become a matter of courtesy in the near future.
If you can, absolutely grab a copy of Constellations. Like Last Ones Left Alive, I read this as part of the Lockdown Book Club, although this had been on my to-read list for quite some time. It’s far from a feel-good read, but it is still uncomfortably comforting. Personally, I can’t wait to read more of Sinéad Gleeson.
The young, female doctor that diagnosed me two years ago and turned my life around for the better passed away recently; she suffered from breast cancer. Incidentally, breast cancer prevention measures are only covered by my country’s insurance providers for women above thirty and fifty years old, respectively.
I like to think that she would have enjoyed this book.