Book Review: A New Constellation by Ashley Mae Hoiland
The heart does not know what it can hold until it is given the thing it must carry. I did not know I would love my children, or the ocean, or the purple flowers that bloom in our front yard tree, until they showed up for me, until I was asked to stoop down and take a piece of them into my heart. I imagine it is the same with things that are hard; I cannot dictate beforehand the ways they will contract and expand my universe until they show up at my front door unexpected. And then I will know they have traveled a long way to get here, that they have made plans to be here for this part of the journey, and that I must let them in. (p. 2)
Ashley Mae Hoiland’s A New Constellation: A Memoir About a Beginning is slim and unassuming–just 86 pages–and is the record of the author’s unexpected diagnosis of multiple sclerosis. The book records her musings, her emotions, and snapshots of her life in the early days of learning she had a chronic illness. Indeed, reading this book is like paging through a scrapbook; it is less clear narrative and more a time capsule of an intense and frightening and, somehow, beautiful time. It is also a love letter to the author’s body, a reworking of her relationship to it, an expansion of the understanding of what it means to be mortal, to be human.
I trust the work the body does, the hot tectonic shifting I can barely detect,
Breaking apart the only Pangea I ever knew
And trust it will re-arrange itself into something of a new history,
One that is mine to write.
(excerpt from the poem Diagnosis, p. 20)
I’ve read several memoirs, and while I generally enjoy the genre, Hoiland’s book had a different feel from anything else I’ve read. Part of that is the style: the non-linear method of storytelling, the collection of vignettes and narrative interspersed with poems, and part of that is that the book was written in real time during those first few weeks after her diagnosis. Hoiland was diagnosed with MS in December 2018, and this book was published in early April 2019, and the author’s closeness to these events imbue the writing with a sense of immediacy, vulnerability, and rawness that feel unique and poignant. There is no trite resolution, no insight gleaned from hindsight years after the fact, no reminiscences made sterile and clinical by the passage of time. It is a rare opportunity to witness such a crushing and formative moment in another person’s life, and Hoiland leads the reader through her journey with grace and grief, and the reader experiences with her the crushing bigness of overwhelm juxtaposed with small snapshots of everyday life, of moments that come like clockwork regardless of tragedy or timing.
The first morning we were in Utah for Christmas break, we woke up to the smell of cinnamon rolls my mom had made for us before she went to work at the hospital. When my whole body ached from the steroids, my own mother drew a hot bath with lavender and a candle on the ledge, and she folded my laundry and tucked a soft blanket around me in the early mornings. This is what mothers do, and it is what my soul searches for as well as my body. [….]
In my moment of trial, I am most interested in imagining female gods and female ancestors, and Mother Earth herself getting the news right along with me. [….] In the religion I know most intimately, I never heard mention of a Divine Female until I was in college, and even then, it felt blasphemous to say aloud. I had never considered Her or Her work. I’d talked about Her so little that she had no job, and no expectations, in my religious world view. When I finally began to imagine Her, I saw a wide open sky of possibilities. A Divine Mother could be anything, could do anything, that I needed Her to be and do. So now She sits quietly with me, Her spirit as calm as a forest, and holds me warm and close under her swan-like wing, the feathers sturdy and imperfect, discolored in places, but determined to hold me safe until the storm passes. (p. 43-45)
There are a few poems sprinkled throughout the text, all of them lovely, but the prose itself is lyrical and poetic, filled with rich imagery and emotion. Hoiland’s writing has an almost deceptively simple cadence to it, making it enjoyably readable and easy to follow, but as I read, I found myself every few pages reading a sentence or paragraph or phrase over again two or three times, letting the words sink in, feeling them wash over me.
This book being written and published as quickly as it was, it’s unsurprising that there are a couple of minor rough edges: a few typos, a metaphor or two that didn’t resonate with me. But this is almost part of the charm of the book, of the author’s attempts to put words to the unexplainable. Such an intimate look into this brief but heavily significant period of the author’s life is a gift. As she states in the blurb on the back cover of the book, “[This] is simply my experience, which I hope can reach out in some way and hold hands with what is hard and unexpected in your life, however small or large.”