Wednesday 19 June 2019

Notes on a life: remarkable, raw and exhilarating

Essays: Notes to Self, Emilie Pine, Tramp Press, paperback, 180 pages, €15

Emotionally naked: in one essay Pine details her four-year odyssey of pregnancy, infertility and miscarriage
Emotionally naked: in one essay Pine details her four-year odyssey of pregnancy, infertility and miscarriage
Notes to Self by Emilie Pine

UCD academic Emilie Pine refuses to self-censor and the result is a deeply personal - yet compellingly universal - collection of essays, writes TANYA SWEENEY

There's a tenet in writing that goes a little something like this: what is most personal is most universal.

The more intimate and specific the writing, in other words, the more likely a reader is to relate.

It's where a great many female essayists, admittedly, tend to go lose their way. In many an essay collection, some lubricate the reader with proclamations on humanity, academic learnings and feminist rhetoric. It's only when they've proven their intellectual nous, evidently, that they will bear their soul.

Emilie Pine, an associate professor at UCD, skips the cerebral generalisations, evidently aware that it's in the lived experience that the real truth lies.

In 'Notes on Intemperance', Pine plunges the reader straight into breaking point.

Pine is personally and emotionally at a breaking point of sorts, but then so is the vastly understaffed and under-resourced Greek hospital her father is lying in.

Pine adopts a mise-en-scène approach to recalling these events, not sparing the vivid details that properly place the reader right there in the room with her.

It's a wondrous, unexpected place to find oneself on the first page of a memoir, and it sets the pace for a book that turns out to be extraordinary, taut and exhilarating. Less How To Be A Woman, more How This One Woman Lived.

Despite Emilie's pleas and protestations down the years, her father (the writer Richard Pine) has immolated himself with alcohol.

Living in a remote part of Greece, he's on the brink of liver failure in a medical system where the nurses have to pay for their own clean gloves and medical supplies. A language barrier makes navigating through the system all the more fraught for Emilie and her sister V, and that's before Emilie starts to unpick her complicated emotions around her father; the sort of man who would drag a five-year-old out of bed and make her recite the alphabet backwards in a room full of drunken strangers, just so he could win a bet.

"The person who loves the addict exhausts and renews their love on a daily basis," Pine observes.

Later, Pine recounts her parents' separation, which happened when she was a youngster.

In one particularly touching moment, Pine writes a postcard to her mother when on holidays with her father. The exercise is less about telling her mother that she's having a good time, more telegraphing the date to which she will return home, so her father won't have to.

He even omits to write her mother's full name on the postcard, as if he can't fully bring himself to do so. And in the years before divorce is legal in Ireland, the dissolution of their marriage appears all the more complicated (though when divorce is legally granted in Ireland, both omit to file for divorce).

Notes to Self's second essay (of six), 'From the Baby Years', is even more emotionally naked, detailing as it does Pine's four-year odyssey of pregnancy, infertility and miscarriage.

She had wanted very badly to become a parent, yet after much heartache, there eventually came a point where she and her partner R had to reconcile themselves to not becoming biological parents.

In the middle of it all, her sister V gets pregnant. There's an impressively candid moment where Pine forgets to congratulate her, still caught up in her own feelings around motherhood.

Then V's daughter dies of an undetected heart anomaly on New Year's Day, a couple of weeks before she is due to be born.

Pine is clearly writing from a very raw and honest place, and she takes the emotional temperature of this time of her family's life perfectly.

In terms of sheer humanity and tenderness, there's barely a fictional passage in the land that can touch it.

Elsewhere, in the essay 'Something About Me', Pine recalls a teenagehood spent in London.

Like many young girls before her, she realised that doing away with breakfast (and then lunch) brought with it an element of social cachet among her peers. From there, she lost her virginity at 13 and started rebelling, attending three new schools in as many months. A couple of years later, Pine and two friends run away from home in London, though she isn't entirely sure why.

Against the backdrop of gig backstage areas, London nightclubs and the apartments of older men who expect something after paying for drinks and drugs all night, the young Pine falls ever further down the rabbit hole.

Every so often, there is an oblique reference to divorce legislation, or the Eighth Amendment in Notes to Self. Yet in the main, Pine lets her direct experience do much of the spadework.

The final essay of the collection, 'Speaking/Not Speaking', breaks slightly with this tradition. It's still told via Pine's experiences as an academic, but becomes a more general take on the silencing of women and the place of women in academia.

It's a fine read, even if Pine's grip on raw introspection is somewhat loosened.

Still, there's a distinct sense that Pine is attempting a sort of catharsis on the page.

In an impressive sleight of hand, there isn't a hint of self-pity in Notes to Self, even though blistering confessionalism and vulnerability runs through much of the book.

Ultimately, there are but a handful of vignettes here, yet in doing away with the self-curating and self-censoring, Pine comes out the other end as a person the reader will truly feel they know.

And perhaps more importantly, like.

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