Emilie Pine’s debut novel bolsters her reputation as an empathetic writer

Ireland has had a golden age of essay writing over the past half-decade, particularly deeply personal essays, and none are more devastating than Emilie Pine’s Notes to Self, from unvarnished examinations of infertility, depression and alcoholic fathers. Book of the Year 2018 at the Irish Book Awards, Pine, a professor of modern drama at University College Dublin, followed it up with his 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 seems to be at breaking point herself, and neurodivergent teenager Pen, who has need “not so much a label as strategies to calm the chaos of the world”. Told from their alternate perspectives — with a handful of other key voices sprinkled in — as the day progresses, 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 first novelists of the year, Pine explained: “I started with Ruth. I have always had it; I had him in my mind as a character for years.

Indeed, one wonders what the novel might have been if it was just about Ruth – Pen’s side of things is fine, but detailing first love (or the possibility of it) in the middle of a walk climate, he feels nailed. Pen berates her mother, Claire, for suggesting that while the climate is important, she should be in school instead. Claire appears as a secondary hero in the story, telling her daughter that there is so much to do, though Pen wants to excel at kissing, laughing out loud, and walking. Like all teenagers, she feels the threat of exams looming – “but that’s what every day is like anyway”. Seems like Pen’s side of the story is written for a younger audience.

Ruth finds herself in a personal crisis one day when she wonders who she is supposed to be today: “Advisor. Patient. Wife. Wife?” As she takes the bus to Dublin city center – crawling through Harold’s Cross, “Ruth can practically feel herself getting old” – where she strolls after a bad session with a patient, she examines her relationship with her partner Aidan, whom she had found just after she stopped looking, a series of failed relationships behind her. Meanwhile, we find Aidan in London; he is supposed to be deciding how to leave his wife, but everywhere he looks, he sees signs of her.

We soon find out that they made multiple attempts, over the years, to have a baby through IVF, but as Aidan pushed for another attempt, he pushed Ruth over the edge. The examinations of their relationship are deep, get personal, and are the defining moments of Pine’s novel, while the most intimate moments are fraught with angst. “‘Why is that the hardest thing for you to say?’ he had asked recently, some dig so she wouldn’t ask for help. When Ruth meets a buggy pusher friend in a cafe, she realizes “she hasn’t moved, she hasn’t lost her true desire”. The description of “thirteen weeks of happiness”, before a miscarriage, is heartbreaking.

However, Ruth’s story seems interrupted by the book’s one-day structure and long unnecessary explanations. As Aidan returns home, for an apparent well-timed confrontation with Ruth that acts as the climax, “there is an eerie moment when the plane seems to slow down and then speed up, controlled no doubt by a pilot but feeling as if something is wrong. The wing flaps rise, slowing the aircraft as the wheels strike, then bounce, then make full contact with the ground. Too often, such descriptions overstay their welcome. In saying this though, Pine is cementing his reputation as one of the nation’s most empathetic writers, and whether his next work is a return to essays or more fiction, they’ll be steeped in sentiment.

  • Ruth & Pen by Emilie Pine
  • Penguin, £14.99

Irene B. Bowles