Friday 14 December 2018

Love hurts: a family history and an ode to humanity

Non-fiction: Notes To Self, Emilie Pine, Tramp Press, €15

Emilie Pine records with painful clarity the intimate details of her relationship with a father, as he was dying of alcohol addiction
Emilie Pine records with painful clarity the intimate details of her relationship with a father, as he was dying of alcohol addiction
Emilie Pine
Notes To Self by Emilie Pine

Justine Carbery

In this, Notes to Self, Tramp Press's first foray into non-fiction, UCD academic Emilie Pine writes that ''it is difficult to translate a great love, a great life into words on a page'' - and yet this is exactly what she does in this stunning, audaciously forthright collection of essays.

She tackles off-limit subjects such as parental alcoholism, infertility, divorce, sexual violence, body image and the pressure to succeed at work. She scrutinises with painful clarity the intimate details of her relationship with her father, dying of alcohol addiction. With an unflinching eye, she records the trauma of being the go-between in her parents' marriage, and she boldly charts the harrowing experiences of infertility, miscarriage and still-birth. The writing is so clean and accessible that each slice of her life is rendered crystal clear, yet there is room for paradox, complexity and humour.

To read these essays is to understand the human condition more clearly, to reassess one's place in the world, and to reclaim one's own experiences as real and valid.

The first essay, Notes on Intemperance, takes an honest look at her father's battle with alcoholism. She recalls how she and her sister rush to be at their father's side when he goes into organ failure in a small understaffed hospital in Corfu, where there are no doctors, and the nurses do not have surgical gloves because they have to pay for them themselves from their pittance of a pay-packet.

Emilie Pine
Emilie Pine

Her dad is called ''the corpse'' as he lies in the dirty bed ''wasted and yellow with sickness'', but he refuses to die. In the long silent hours by his side Emilie reflects on how she and her sister learnt early not to ask their father for anything.

She recounts the numerous cruelties meted out. When she was 10, he left her and her five-year-old sister in a pub because one of them had poured her orange squash into his gin and tonic. "He drove away and he did not come back for us. We found someone else to give us dinner. We found someone else to drive us home. We put ourselves to bed."

And she admits that it's hard to love an addict. "I used to push myself to reject him, to walk away, failing each time. I oscillated between caring for the man who was afflicted with this terrible disease, and attempting to protect myself from the emotional fallout of having an alcoholic father."

She recounts these powerful moments without blame or pity, rather more as a means to understanding the bigger picture. I suspect this essay will resonate deeply with anyone who has ever loved an addict. They will feel less alone for having their complicated emotions articulated so well.

The second essay, The Baby Years, will make you cry.

In it, she bravely charts her journey from desperately trying to have a baby, though pregnancy and miscarriage to the final realisation and hard-won acceptance that it was not to be.

She highlights the ignominy of peeing on sticks, recording the quality and consistency of excreted bodily fluids and how decidedly unsexy it is to wave a fertility chart at your partner and demand immediate sex.

Anyone who has been through this experience will relate to every last intimate detail and will welcome the lifting of the lid off these seldom-discussed topics.

Speaking/Not Speaking illuminates the detrimental effect a toxic marriage, separation and not speaking can have on a child. She highlights how confusing and traumatic it was to be used as a go-between.

"When your dad gives you a letter for that bitch, you have to give it to your mum. When your mum takes the letter and cries, you blame yourself. When you do something wrong and your mum tells you in her meanest voice that you are just like your dad, you blame yourself again. When your dad gets a girlfriend and cancels you, you're confused. When your dad says he's bored by children and you can go to hell, you're even more confused."

The list of hurts goes on. She records these not in a spiteful or self-pitying manner, but rather to shine a light on taboo subjects and to better understand herself and her own relationships.

And in doing so she makes us think about our own memories, and how and what we have to learn from them.

I have underlined so much of this book that I may need to buy another. I have photocopied the last page and stuck it to my fridge, my bathroom mirror, my noticeboard at work.

Notes to Self is one of the most important books to come out of Ireland - and I must salute Emilie Pine for bravely offering us this beautiful powerful ode to humanity.

Buy this book for everyone you know, the women, young and old in your life, the men, especially the young, who are learning to navigate the new world order in light of the #MeToo, #TimesUp and #RepealThe8th campaigns.

Give it to your friends and your family, but most importantly gift it to yourself.

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