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Constellations, Sinéad Gleeson; Undressing, James O’Neill

Dani Garavelli is gripped by Sinéad Gleeson’s searingly honest depictions of womanhood

In one of the most talked-about televisual moments of the year, Kristin Scott Thomas, playing a successful businesswoman, tells Phoebe Waller-Bridge aka Fleabag: “Women are born with pain built in. It’s our physical destiny: period pains, sore boobs, childbirth. We carry it within ourselves throughout our lives.”

This is the territory Constellations, Sinéad Gleeson’s first essay collection, inhabits. As a woman diagnosed with monoarticular arthritis and then leukaemia, Gleeson has endured more physical pain than most. That she has done so predominantly in Ireland, where the female body is still fiercely contested, is what makes her book shine so brightly.

Gleeson’s writing sparkles from the get-go; she also has a gift for making her own, highly specific experience universal. In Blue Hills and Chalk Bones, she describes how the synovial fluid in her left hip began to “evaporate like rain” and “the bones ground together, literally turning to dust.” This physical erosion, at the age of 13, left her limping and self-conscious.

“I read that shrews and weasels can shrink their own bones to survive,” she writes – a stunning line that will resonate with any woman who ever wished herself invisible.

Though Constellations is, effectively, a memoir, Gleeson looks outwards towards the world; insatiably curious, she scrutinises the body anatomically, politically, philosophically and as it relates to art and literature.

In Hair (again, that Fleabag vibe) she moves from her fraught relationship with her own “mousy” locks to the way hair is used to define women racially, sexually and religiously. Her cultural allusions are eclectic – fromPJ Harvey to Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Franko B – but they are always interesting, always relevant. It never feels as if she’s showing off. 

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At times Gleeson’s style reminds me of Kathleen Jamie’s; obsessively forensic, yet poignant. 60,000 Miles of Blood is so-called because “if you take all the blood vessels in an adult body… and lay them out in a continuous line,” that’s how far they stretch. It ends with the death of her best friend’s husband. “I think of how our lifelong kinetic redness transforms in death,” she writes. “A final reinvention, a turning towards stillness and away from the vitality in every living thing.”

Yet Gleeson is more overtly feminist than Jamie. In this same essay, she looks at how the spilling of male blood is associated with war and heroism; the spilling of female blood with menstruation and shame.

Almost all of her writing is framed by Catholicism. At one point, she describes a pilgrimage to Lourdes. As her school’s only shot at a real live miracle, she feels the weight of expectation. And there is a miracle of sorts: one born not of divine intervention, but her own insight. Seeing more seriously ill people crying, she realises she will go home and “live with [her] imperfection”.

Undressingby James O’Neill is also concerned with bodies. O’Neill is a psychotherapist and his book is the real-life story of 12 years spent counselling a troubled man called Abraham. As trust develops, Abraham discloses how childhood abuse has made him revolted by his own physicality. But therapy is a two-way process. Working with Abraham forces O’Neill to confront issues from his past. If the developing intimacy between the two is uncomfortable, this is no bad thing. The book is, after all, about the way sex abuse erodes self-worth and militates against healthy relationships.

Constellations: Reflections from Life Sinéad Gleeson (Picador, £16.99)

Undressing James O’Neill (Short Books, £9.99) Published on May 2

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