Ireland has enjoyed a golden era of essay writing over the past half-decade or so, particularly deeply personal ones, and none more devastating than Emilie Pine’s Notes to Self, unvarnished examinations of infertility, depression, and alcoholic fathers. Book of the Year 2018 at the Irish Book Awards, Pine, professor of modern drama at University College Dublin, has followed it up with debut novel Ruth & Pen.
Set on a single day when everything seems on edge, as a climate protest takes hold in Dublin, it follows Ruth, a therapist who herself seems at breaking point, and neurodivergent teen Pen, who needs “not so much a label as strategies to calm the world’s chaos”. Told from their alternate perspectives — with a handful of other key voices sprinkled in — as the day creeps along, Pine says it’s about what happens when you stop asking the world for permission to be yourself.
In an interview with The Guardian, about the best debut novelists of the year, Pine explained: “I started with Ruth. I always had her; I’d had her in my mind as a character for years.”
Indeed one wonders what the novel could have been if it was solely about Ruth — Pen’s side of things is fine, but detailing first love (or the possibility of it) amid a climate march, it feels tacked on. Pen admonishes her mother, Claire, for suggesting that even though climate is important, she should be in school instead. Claire emerges as a sideline hero of the story, telling her daughter there is so much stuff to be great at, though Pen wants to excel at kissing and laughing out loud and marching. Like all teens, she feels the threat of exams looming — “but then that’s what every day feels like anyway”. It feels like Pen’s side of the story is written for a younger audience.
Ruth finds herself in a personal crisis on a day when she wonders who she’s meant to be today: “Counsellor. Patient. Wife. Wife?” As she gets the bus into Dublin City centre — crawling through Harold’s Cross, “Ruth can practically feel herself ageing” — where she wanders around after a bad session with a patient, she self-examines her relationship with partner Aidan, who she’d found just after she stopped looking, a string of failed relationships behind her. Meanwhile, we find Aidan in London; he is meant to be deciding how to leave his wife, but everywhere he looks, he sees signs of her.
We soon discover they have made multiple attempts, over years, to have a baby through IVF, but as Aidan pushed for another go, he pushed Ruth over the edge. The examinations of their relationship cut deep, get personal, and are the stand-out moments of Pine’s novel, as the most intimate moments become strewn with anguish. “‘Why is this the hardest thing for you to say?’ he had asked recently, some dig about her not asking for help.” When Ruth meets a buggy-pushing friend at a cafe, she realises “she has not moved on, she has not lost her real longing”. The description of “thirteen weeks of happiness”, before a miscarriage, are gut-wrenching.
However, Ruth’s story feels interrupted by the single-day structure of the book and long, needless explanations. As Aidan flies home, for a well-timed apparent confrontation with Ruth that acts as the climax, “there is a strange moment as the plane seems to slow and then to accelerate, controlled no doubt by a pilot but feeling like something goes wrong. The flaps on the wings go up, slowing the plane as the wheels hit, then bounce, then make full contact with the ground.” Too often, such descriptions outstay their welcome. Saying that though, Pine reinforces her reputation as one of the most empathetic writers in the country. Whether her next work is a return to essays or more fiction, they’ll be infused with feeling.
- Ruth & Pen by Emilie Pine
- Penguin, £14.99