Ruth & Pen Emilie Pine Hamish Hamilton, €13.99
Emilie Pine came to prominence as a writer on the back of Notes to Self (2019), a collection of autobiographical essays that was widely praised for the intelligence and candour of its introspections.
In this country in particular, the book and the themes it explored acquired a wider, more public resonance that owed much to the context of its publication: her reflections on motherhood and infertility, fathers and daughters, church and state, dovetailed with a certain Irish zeitgeist. The ‘Eighth’ had just been repealed, marriage equality had come a few years earlier, Ireland was changing – rapidly, and for the better, most would agree.
On the one hand, Ruth & Pen represents a radical shift for Pine, both in terms of genre and style. A novel, it is written in the present tense, largely from the perspective of the two titular women. Gone are the perks of omniscience.
On the other hand, her debut work of fiction also revolves around many of the themes with which Notes to Self was concerned – the body in general, but women’s bodies in particular; gender relations; the world’s inhospitality, especially to those judged to be different, or who do not conform (whether by choice or not).
The plot is relatively simple. Ruth is a therapist whose marriage to Aidan is on the verge of collapse following four rounds of IVF and a miscarriage. Pen is a gay neurodivergent teenager who is both anxious and excited about an upcoming date and attending an Extinction Rebellion protest.
In an obvious nod to Joyce’s Ulysses, the novel takes place over 24 hours in Dublin. Ruth and Pen, strangers to one another, will cross paths, like Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus.
On one level, Ruth & Pen is a conventional novel, which seeks to illuminate the emotional lives of two characters. It does this well and with great empathy, and it would take a heart of stone not to be moved by what is revealed to be Pen’s predicament.
More original, perhaps, is what the novel discloses about language and the nature of communication. For Pen, whose relationship to language is mediated by her autism: “Words touch the surface of things, sliding across the world and your tongue. Some words can make you feel loved and soft, and others dent and damage.”
Pine is careful not to use Pen’s neurodivergence merely to show or speculate about how autistic people might relate to language. Rather, we are offered Pen’s reflections on language as such – the language that we all use, share and require.
Some idioms – she is especially struck by “a burnt child dreads the fire” – really are weird, aren’t they?
The novel’s Dublin setting aside, there is also something Joycean about Pine’s approach to Pen as a narrator. She clearly wants her to sound like a teenager, much as Joyce sought to capture a child’s perspective on the world in the opening pages of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.
This is a high-wire act. Pen will say – or think – something like: “Alice is perfect. Alice is a wave of perfect.” Twee, yes, but lovesick teenagers are twee.
At the same time, there are moments that do just come across as trite: “Sometimes it is the absence of resilience that makes things beautiful.” That strikes me as Pine’s bromide, not Pen’s.
Pine’s characters are lavished with a sympathy and goodwill that the “real world” insists on denying many. In this respect, Ruth & Pen can feel truly unrealistic. The “real world” is Sandy, Pen’s father, telling her she is “too thin-skinned”, that she needs to “toughen up”.
Give me Pine’s fictional world over the “real” one any day.