‘Hagstone’ Is a Masterful Novel Full of Seduction and Risk

Sinéad Gleeson’s debut is a narrative of the dogged determination it takes to make a life of your own

BY Vanessa Peterson in Books , Opinion | 23 MAY 24

Sinéad Gleeson’s debut novel, Hagstone, is a beautifully evocative ode to the natural world – at its best, a poetic dialogue with the landscape and a moving communion with the sea. We are introduced to Nell, an artist, who walks in ‘concentric circles, marking a kind of solar system’ on Banshla beach on an island located away from other communities and the mainland. The island rings with a mysterious sound only some can hear – ‘a murmur one might mistake for the sound of a party drifting through a wall’, which causes birds to fall from the sky. Nell is armed with a camera and a drone so she can document her markings, as fleeting and ephemeral as the elements serving to erase her efforts. Nell is a relative outsider in her community: those around her often can’t quite understand what motivates her, with one villager, bemused at Nell’s choice of profession (which includes giving tours of the island as another form of income), asking briskly with reference to Nell’s artistic career, ‘how do you make money?’ Sometimes, Nell herself seems unsure of how to pursue her artistic interests, burdened by economic constraints, living an ‘uncloistered […] erratic, hand-to-mouth life […] devoid of discipline’.

Several stories weave their way through this masterful novel: we are introduced early on to the Iníons, a commune composed solely of women who have left their lives in countries all over the world to live together in a convent called Rathglas. Located on a hill isolated from the other inhabitants of the island, the Iníons, who have retreated from society almost entirely in an attempt ‘to hide, to cede from the world’, are guided by a mother figure, Maman, possibly a reference to Louise Bourgeois’s 30-foot-tall spider sculpture of the same name. (Bourgeois appears again in the novel when Nell tries to explain her motivations for making a large spiral artwork on the island, noting, ‘I’m trying to make something about infinity.’) These outsiders – the Iníons and Nell herself – find themselves colliding when the former invite the latter to come to Rathglas to produce a book project, in time for an annual festival during Samhain, commemorating their stories of living ‘receding from the world with its grief and inequalities and responsibilities’. The women in Rathglas attempt to escape the emotional and physical fallout of ‘high-powered jobs and burnout’, along with complex familial entanglements and relationship breakdowns – by receding from the world, they attempt to make it anew, or in the words of one of the women, ‘reject the world outside with its hatred and inequality’. Initially suspicious of Nell and her intentions, many of the women feel wary of an outside presence, one they sought to reject, and treat Nell with mild disdain and silence.

Sinéad Gleeson, Hagstone, 2024, book cover. Courtesy: HarperCollins Publishers 

The complex relations at Rathglas steadily become more apparent to Nell as she learns more about its inhabitants, with Maman’s familiar presence proving to be a sinister, claustrophobic force for some at the convent. Maman discourages the Iníons from socializing in each other’s rooms for what she describes as ‘frivolous’ conversation. When the Iníons are allowed to engage with each other as intellectual peers, they discuss topics such as gender politics in art, reflecting on the legacies of male artists such as Paul Gauguin and Pablo Picasso, and how Salvador Dalí’s career obscured those of surrealist women such as Leonora Carrington and Dorothea Tanning.

Narratives of love and desire emerge, too. Early in the novel, during a chance encounter while making artworks on the beach, Nell meets and falls in love with a stranger, Cleary, who returns to the island from his regular sea work. While these intense encounters help to move the novel along, the presence of characters such as Cleary, along with Nick, an American actor who eventually uses Nell’s increasing intimacy with the Iníon women to gain access for his own artistic project, feel lightweight and secondary to what becomes the most important force in the novel: Nell’s drive to understand and harness her own artistic ability and skill as a singular force.

Gleeson takes great pains to evoke the beauty of the island’s landscape and its rugged, atmospheric charm, in parts seductive and also full of potential risk. The novel opens with ‘[b]ack along the quiet, quiet roads full of blame [...].’ Sand is ‘viscous’; boats are ‘nauseous’. There are poetic turns of phrase: the alliterative ‘forest fern fuzz’ and ‘[i]n the bay, boats bob like flocked birds’ appear in the prologue as well as the anaphoric ‘over’, a repetitious digging motion. Gleeson depicts Nell as a close reader of people and landscapes. At various points, the protagonist remarks on minor details: how the island looks at its best at night (‘the harbour, rid of its daytime busyness, transformed into something enticing’); the social relations of the people who are regulars in the island’s local pub; Cleary working on a project at his table (‘concentration spreads across his brow’). These descriptions of Nell’s looking become acts of communion, with an almost devotional bent to understanding the world through what she can see.

Portrait of Sinéad Gleeson. Courtesy: Sinéad Gleeson; photograph: © Bríd O’Donovan

A note at the end of the novel anchors Gleeson’s allusions to the works and lives of several artists, such as Maggi Hambling’s wave paintings and Cecilia Vicuña’s Kon Kon (2010), the inspiration for Nell’s circles on the beach. In this ‘documentary poem’, according to Electronic Arts Intermix, Vicuña returns to what she calls the ‘birthplace of her artmaking’ on the beaches of Concón, Chile, to reckon with the sonido rajado, or ‘torn sound’, of Indigenous Chilean flutes. Vicuña contemplates a world where musical and oral traditions are disappearing, with shots of the sea and coastline: she considers the transmission of cultural heritage, via dances such as bailes chinos (originating from the pre-Columbian period and performed by groups of male dancers), in the midst of transition and change, since an oil refinery permanently altered the landscape of Concón beginning in the 1950s. In both Hagstone and Kon Kon, ecological and manmade changes to the landscape erode people’s connections with nature, as well as destroying the legacies of history and memory embedded within the landscape itself.

While it would be easy to paint this as a sentimental, romantic novel – on the level of depicting both craft-making and relationships (human and non-human) – Hagstone is more obviously a narrative of the dogged determination it takes to make a life of your own. The title itself is a reference to stones with holes running through them, worn by the sea or other natural elements: these stones often appear in folklore tales, protecting the hero from malevolent spirits or providing luck to their carrier. Gleeson’s description of a hagstone reveals the core tenet of the novel: ‘If you look through the hole, you’re meant to see a different view of the world. [...] Looking, seeing, an artist thing.’ Presenting an ode to the exhilaration, monotony and loneliness of dedicating yourself to any artistic craft, Gleeson deftly creates a world where to be an artist, in any sense, is a worthy pursuit: both fulfilling and exasperating, against a backdrop where the natural world can move and seduce in equal measure. While some parts of the novel, such as Nell’s amorous encounters, feel slight in comparison to a central plot of singular encounter and discovery, the novel races towards a conclusion that left me feeling deeply moved. Despite the rejection, uncertainty and diminishing funds, amongst many other pitfalls, Nell endures.

Sinéad Gleeson’s Hagstone is published by HarperCollins Publishers

Main image: Seascape at Beachy Head (detail), 2023, Sussex. Courtesy: Gary Yeowell/Getty Images

Vanessa Peterson is associate editor of frieze. She lives in London, UK.