At the end of 2020 it’s the time when the book of the year, in many different countries and categories of awards has been announced. In France the prestigious Prix Goncourt, in the US and around the world National Book awards laureates names and their book titles have been unveiled and I have been delighted to see some of my favorite authors acknowledged and to discover great new ones.
However, for 2020, this peculiar year of the Covid pandemic where is the category and book that helps us deal with a global Covid death toll exceeding one million people? Where is the book for people to read when hospitalized or bedridden from the virus for months not knowing if they’ll face their maker or continue on the trajectory of life? In a world where we live masked, isolated, distanced, deprived of proper funeral rites, wakes and collective keening, we turn to our Irish authors, who often forged links between those living, and the “other side”. A good Irish philosophical read can often lead us to reflect on our conception of life and death along with helping in the long, difficult process of grieving.
“Seventh Heaven from Seven Perspectives” a novel by Maria Sweeney, an Irish author living in Paris is that book in a missing “Life and Death” category.
On the first day of Xmas, in the midst of the ongoing Covid pandemic, yearning for a great and profound read, I found her novel was especially relevant …I curled up with Sweeney’s ‘unputdownable’ novel and had a terrific read accompanied by many cups of Barry’s tea. The Irish diaspora in France, return to France with boxes of Barry’s tea and Tayto crisps, to keep each other supplied with vital necessities !
The Seventh Heaven ,despite its subject, (seven protagonists’ near death stories) is definitely not a doom and gloom read but actually lets in the light. It treats with well-chosen words, lyrical writing and streams of consciousness, questions we often skirt around. The one thing we all know for sure is that we will all die one day. Although in former times, the concept of death seemed more included in life, in pre Covid modern times people often lived much of their lives pussyfooting around that most elementary fact of life.
The day of reckoning was horrifically advanced for so many by Covid and their family and friends may take years to absorb the shock of those “premature” deaths. Irish authors from all genres, from James Joyce to Cecelia Ahern (“PS, I Love You” and “Postscript”) offered succor and wisdom in works treating the subject of death in highly readable ways.
Sweeney also soothes us with her refreshing spiritual, philosophical and sometimes humorous outlook, allowing us to contemplate the roads already travelled by dearly departed loved ones, along with our own “road” and final destination. She examines seven impending deaths with a sentiment of kind curiosity somehow permitting less apprehension of the big “end game”. That there are seven deaths to consider provides a microcosm of the global collective grief the world is currently experiencing.
Sweeney’s novel also deals with « Sars » the first corona virus of 2002. Her own mother died the same year, a trauma, which triggered her to write the novel. She believes Heaven lies in our subconscious and comes to the forefront of our consciousness when we are faced with the ultimate “light”. The story took almost two decades to ripen and mature because the subject is so far-reaching.
Her empathy seeps through the seven very different characters, from every corner of the globe, underlining a message of compassion integral to the novel. The novel may also offer psychological tools to avoid us the usual regrets people often face at their final hour. Bonnie Ware, a palliative nurse and bestselling author of « The Top Five Regrets of The Dying » outlined many’s surprising similar regrets:
- 1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me
- 2. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard
- 3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings
- 4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends
- 5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.
When I turned the final page of Sweeney’s protagonists seven life voyages, I found my personal perspective had shifted. Like Bonnie Ware’s book, “Seventh Heaven from Seven Perspectives” had an effect of similar profundity in a more literary work. I sense the strength, optimism and magic of Sweeney’s words sprinkled far and wide could be comforting as we draw the curtains on the most awful year of many of our lives.
One of the seven stories from Sweeney’s very different protagonists in the novel is about « Eamonn », and since the passage is about the Christmas spirit, that “giddy virus that seizes Ireland in the build up to Christmas”, I thought this might be the right time to share it with FUSAC’S readers:
“Evenings were falling early, it being just on the turn of the longest night.
Only a quarter to five but he fairy lights were all a-lit
just in case anyone could forget for one minute it was Christmas time in Dublin, the silly period…
His immune system was low, the doctor had warned Eamonn.
Germs and antigens would be affecting the atoms of his blood,
atoms whose electrons would be radiating and migrating.
Best not to think of that tonight though,
far better to join in the giddy virus that seizes Ireland in the build up to Christmas,
that of elation and the craic.
Some nations try to make merry but the Irish cannot stop.
They license themselves a carte-blanch to eat, drink and spend beyond all reason,
a time of overflow and excess
and it doesn’t stop at a day or a week,
it’s the whole darned month of Nollaig, the gaelach for both Christmas and December,
so the party starts on the first and gains momentum, until people pop and spill like champagne on Christmas day.”
Eamonn and the other six characters in the novel are so well defined, you feel you know them well. From hippy life in orgasmic San Francisco to a martyr’s brainwashing in Palestine, from Jewish eating regulations in London to good karma in Calcutta to Xmas in Dublin Sweeney’s novel offers a new and peaceful, loving and joyful take on life and death. That’s why at the end of this « annus horribilis » it wins my personal first prize…
Seventh Heaven from Seven Perspectives is available in English and French on Amazon and available to bookstores via Ingram iPage.
Maria Sweeney moved from Dublin to Paris in 1997. To her surprise, regarded as a refreshing international newcomer, she was soon invited to put on a one women show entitled ‘Exotic Tales and Dances from Celtic Literature’ at the Irish Cultural Centre and went on to cut this show into acts which she performs regularly around Paris. She loves to wear these masks, but inside lies her naked self, her deeper impulse is to write, and this novel is her legacy to the world, a box of jewels offering insights to the many beliefs of the world. The story Seventh Heaven stemmed from watching her mother die and though it was a ripping apart for the family her mother reacted to something alluring,welcoming, inspiring in the light of death. Maria is a storyteller and enjoys putting an audience under a spell as she recounts these tales which she has done in both Paris and Boston. A reader is Paris who was so impressed by her message commissioned her to get the book translated into French.
Article written by Patricia Killeen who as a former guest manager for one of the top luxury boutique hotels in Paris, is constantly on the lookout for the best events and addresses in the city. She is fascinated by how expatriates living in Paris often just blossom! In Gertrude Stein style, many adroitly navigate the balance between maintaining their own identity and culture, while simultaneously soaking up the sparkle and light of Paris, their adopted ‘home town’. Patricia graduated, as a mature student with a Master’s degree in English literature from the Sorbonne, Paris 3 and loves living in a city paved with the words of writers and philosophers. She’s ‘IrishCentral’s’ woman on the ground in Paris and has also written for ‘Expatriate Magazine in Paris & Suburbs’ She is also the host of the « Turning Points » series for World Radio Paris (WRP) which presents Expats for whom Paris has been a life changing and enhancing experience.