Irish author Maria Sweeney's new novel "Seventh Heaven from Seven Perspectives" is particularly relevant given the strange year that 2020 has been.

The shortlist for the 2020 An Post Irish Book Awards has been announced with winners in 16 categories, including Novel of the Year, Children’s (Junior and Senior), Cookery, Crime Fiction, Popular Fiction, Nonfiction, Sports, Short Story, Poetry, Teen, Young Adult, and Irish Language. I was delighted to see the names of some of my favorite authors along with great new authors to discover.

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 novel, 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 older Ireland 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 coronavirus 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 their 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 protagonist's 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 in Dublin, that “giddy virus that seizes Ireland in the build-up to Christmas”, I thought this would be the right time to share it with IrishCentral’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 on Amazon and available to bookstores via Ingram iPage.

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