Reading Ireland Month continues this week with a look at some Non-Fiction books by Irish writers.
Emilie Pine’s striking new book Notes to Self blurs the lines between essay and memoir to become something truly unique, a treatise on life as a middle-aged woman, boldly yet sensitively exploring issues such as alcoholism, infertility, addiction and sexual assault. The subject matter here is daunting, dark even, but Pine writes with a clarity and simplicity that brings added depth to the subjects she explores.
The opening is a strong one and sets the tone for the honesty of the rest of the collection.
By the time we find him, he has been lying in a small pool of his own shit for several hours
The ‘he’ is question is Pine’s father, Richard – also an academic and writer – and ‘Notes of Intemperance’ charts their relationship through an exploration of his alcoholism, which has led to liver failure in a Corfu hospital. She tells of her experience growing up as the child of an addict with all its pain, shame and resentment, but at the centre of the story is still love – the love that brings a daughter halfway across the world to try and bring her dying father home.
This ability to see the painful reality of a situation, but to still see the hope at the heart, is one of the key successes of these essays. From the Baby Years is a grim examination of the process of trying and failing to conceive a child. For anyone who has gone through infertility, this will be a painful story to read and despite the fact that Pine and her husband made a decision to stop treatment, there is a wonderful acceptance of the joys of parenthood, even when they are slightly out of your reach.
I watched as my friends answered the question with a ‘yes’ and became parents. I saw the shock on their faces, the tiredness in their eyes, the extraordinary range of emotions provoked by the new person they had made. And I saw the love.
Aside from the poignantly personal aspect of the story, Pine also lays bare the cold economics at the heart of the fertility business – for it is a business. She is horribly aware that her wish to have a child is going to cost her financially and how the personal aspect of their situation is lost in the rigmarole of hospital consultations.
I look back on those months and years and our trying and our failing and our appointments and our second appointments and on and on, a pattern emerges. A pattern in which I am not taken seriously, or we are not taken seriously. Or not seriously enough.
The idea that women are not taken seriously enough runs through the whole book. She explores the secrets around her parent’s relationship and her mother’s difficulties in bringing up her children alone. In Notes on Bleeding and Other Crimes, she bemoans the embarrassment surrounding menstruation, while in Not on the Exam, she explores the ever-present misogyny she encounters as a female academic where the gap between how she feels herself to be and how she appears to others is painfully pronounced.
Women are meant to be flattered by being told we look young because, for a woman, looks are the most important thing, and youth is the best look of all. But in informing me that I look youthful…or asking me if I’m a student when I am clearly a tenured lecturer, these men strip from me more than a decade of professional experience and expertise. The so-called compliment is, in fact, an instant demotion.
In one of the most affecting essays Something About Me – Pine takes the image of herself as a cool-headed writer and academic and turns it on its head – exploring her wild teenage years living in London, taking drugs and occasionally living on the street. The irony of the danger inherent the situations she put herself in are not lost on Pine, nor will they be lost on the reader. This essay is painfully honest in its understanding of the recklessness of youth and how that recklessness can be taken advantage of, with devastating consequences.
She does not shy away from painful situations, and it is difficult to read of her confrontation with an older man who raped her. In attempting to take back control of what happened to her, her perpetrator puts the blame squarely back on his victim, by attacking not just her body, but her sense of self.
It’s just something about you, a vibe you give off.’ I kept that damaging explanation with me, inside me, for decades.
Pine’s father once told her “that writing is a way of making sense of the world, a way of processing – of possessing – thought and emotion, a way of making something worthwhile out of pain”.
This clear-eyed, somewhat radical book does just that. It is refreshingly bold and transforms all the mess and pain of life through honed prose that shines with intelligence and recognition. Notes to Self is a rallying cry, to women and to readers in general, to take our lives and ourselves seriously, because they, and we, are fleeting and precious.
For my last giveaway for Reading Ireland Month, I have a copy of Notes to Self to pass on to one lucky reader! Simply leave a comment below and the Begorrathon Helpers ® will draw a winner on Sunday!
About the Author
Emilie Pine is Associate Professor in Modern Drama at UCD, joining the School of English, Drama and Film in 2008. She teaches and supervises student work in the fields of theatre and memory cultures. Emilie is Director of the Irish Memory Studies Research Network (www.irishmemorystudies.com) and Editor of the Irish University Review and recently edited the Special Issue on Moving Memory: The Dynamics of the Past in Irish Culture.
Emilie has published widely in the fields of theatre and memory studies, including The Politics of Irish Memory: Performing Remembrance in Contemporary Irish Culture, published by Palgrave Macmillan.
Her forthcoming book is on the dynamics of witnessing memory and trauma in contemporary international theatre (forthcoming, Indiana University Press). Emilie is a member of the Advisory Board of the international Memory Studies Association and is convenor of the Memory Cloud Project.
Notes to Self won The An Post Irish Book of the Year 2018 – chosen by a public vote from the list of category winners at the Awards – previous winners include Solar Bones by Mike McCormack, Asking for it by Louise O’Neill, The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan and Solace by Belinda McKeon.
I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!