A treatise on infidelity and way more – The Irish Occasions

negative space

author: Cristin Leach

ISBN-13: 978-1785371912

publisher: Merrion Press

target price: €14.95

In this astute essay and memoir, Cristín Leach begins by quoting Seamus Heaney: Writers are people who cannot help but “measure their own identity by how well they can write”. Leach, who has been an art critic for almost 20 years (most visibly for The Sunday Times), knows in both mundane and profound ways how life and writing can become painfully out of whack.

A curious consequence of being a prolific journalist or reviewer: you can often align the timescale of your published existence with events in “real” life, ghastly or happy. As time-stamped computer files and printed fragments accumulate, they rhyme with the story of birth and death, failure and success. Also betrayal, shock, the ruin of a marriage.

The controlled panic reaction cannot last: Leach soon went to bed and stayed there for three days

Leach recalls that in 2014 she was reviewing a book on Irish art and architecture when she received a text message saying her husband was cheating on her. And she continued, “My body was so full of adrenaline that instead of screaming or fighting, I shut up and went to work with words.”

Many writers, perhaps especially those who meet their deadlines, will have similar stories. But the controlled panic reaction cannot last: Leach soon went to bed and stayed there for three days. Negative Space is, in a way, a conventional treatise on what happened next: marriage counseling and a slow realization that all the talk was only delaying a certain ending; months of wearing sunglasses at the school gates and seeing in their friends’ eyes the fear of their falling weight; constant nagging about what she (and her husband) hadn’t realized about the marriage.

But this is also the memoir of a writer trying to figure out what kind of writer she was and wants to be now — which is also (again, Heaney) a way of asking what kind of person she is. “Words are solid and slippery things. When my marriage broke up I distrusted them for a while.” When she returns to writing, she and it must have changed.

begin childhood

Leach recalls learning not to say “I” early in her journalism career, toning down subjective or descriptive passages to fit the constraints of word count, audience, and editorial style. (She had actually started out as a child writer, editing book reviews for RTÉ Guide: an anxious and arduous first freelance venture.)

“Negative Space” – the title refers to her mother’s drawing class – is partly about allowing her writing to become more personal: or rather, more physical. Criticism and autobiography begin to merge, and Leach finds correlates to her predicament or directions on how to overcome it in a wide range of art and literature.

When she learns of her husband’s infidelity, she wrings her hands and realizes for the first time that this doesn’t just happen in books

It’s an established and sometimes awkward genre that combines memoirs or personal essays with excursions into the description or analysis of beloved works of art. But here it feels immediate and utterly compelling. A sculpture by Dorothy Cross based on the negative space in a kiss, the “accusing gaze” by Saoirse Wall in a video self-portrait, the voice and presence of Doireann Ní Ghríofa when she reads her poetry aloud – none of this serves as an aesthetic or intellectual displacement of pain, but to confirm and enrich Leach’s understanding of it.

She is unusually good at writing about embodiment. When she learns of her husband’s infidelity, she wrings her hands and realizes for the first time that this doesn’t just happen in books. As if to shout down stereotypes about finding your own voice: “After my marriage broke up, I go to the top of a mountain and scream. The wind whips the sound away, letting it out of my mouth before it even reaches the air. I scream into the empty house. I yell at the empty house. I scream in the bath.”

Test your voice

For an author whose subjects are mostly visual, she pays a lot of attention to sound and describes tinnitus (“an inner bell, an inner alarm”), meaning she is never fully aware of her own inner being. During her perinatal yoga teacher training, she learns to channel and appreciate the sounds she made while giving birth to her children.

A distrust of language, a longing to come to terms with it, goes hand in hand with the vocation to write

At times, the way Leach pits such a corporeal being and its artistic incarnation against the abstractions of critical intelligence (including their own) can seem a bit too schematic. But I think in these pages she’s testing different aspects of her voice, rather than definitely siding with sentiment over reason, urgency over craft. A distrust of language, a longing to be done with it, accompanies the vocation to write and is felt in a special way by those of us who write about art. Negative Space is the chronicle of a writer reinventing life and language, knowing they will always go together oddly.

Brian Dillon’s Affinities, a book primarily about photography, will be published in 2023

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