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In A Hard School

Susan McKay

Notes to Self: Essays, by Emilie Pine, Tramp Press, 180 pp, €15, ISBN: 978-1999700843

Emilie Pine has written an astonishingly fine book. It is a book about a woman’s life, and it is a book about love. Love of her father, love of her sister and their mother, the desire to have her own children to love, love of her partner, and also, and this is the greatest achievement, the faltering beginnings of love of herself, a love founded in the same compassion and empathy and respect for mystery that she extends to the other people in her life. She writes with courage and generosity and with a rare ability to stand back and witness her own experience and how she is transformed by it.

Pine got her training in how to be a writer in a hard school. Her father had what she calls with almost hilarious discretion, an “unusual approach to parenting”. His drinking always came first. “As we grew up, we knew not to ask anything of him.” On one occasion he storms out of a pub after Pine’s five-year-old sister pours orange squash into his gin and Pine, then ten, fails to stop her. The little girls have to find someone else to feed them, someone else to drive them home, where they put themselves to bed, regarding it all as quite unremarkable. “Like all children of heavy drinkers, we developed a particular kind of watchfulness ... caught between endless ultimatums (stop drinking) and radical acceptance (I love you no matter what) the person who loves the addict exhausts and renews their love on a daily basis.”

The book begins with an account of how as adults, Pine and her sister repay their father’s neglect with love, albeit laced with fury, saving his life when he ends up at death’s door in a Greek hospital which has clearly been starved of resources for so long that it is scarcely functioning. They sleep by his bedside, wipe his bottom and spoonfeed him. She seethes when, in a piece he later writes, about this he calls them “walking saints” and she is astonished that he fails to acknowledge the “brutal hurt” his career as a drinker has caused to his family. She tries to deny him her love, but discovers that this damages her. She does not spare him, however.

That the personal is political is a central feminist tenet. Pine’s essays are personal. They are also rooted in this country and vividly demonstrate how conservative and Catholic laws hurt people and marginalise them in their own lives. She describes attending a college debate about divorce during the second of the referenda on the issue, wanting to learn something. “None of it felt true to me ...” she writes ... “... they did not know what I knew. Or they knew, but did not think it worth saying.” The absence of divorce, in her lived experience, condemned her family to “the limbo of non-existence”. There was nothing to stop her father spending all his money on drink, while her mother struggled to raise their children. She recalls her excitement when a couple of years later she sees an ad for a holiday package for one parent and two children. “That was us. We existed.”

There are two essays dealing with her own inability to have a child, and the painful struggles she and her partner embark on to try to make it happen. The infamous and unlamented eighth amendment makes an ugly appearance ‑ preventing medical staff discussing her situation when, in the early weeks of a pregnancy, there is foetal growth but no heartbeat. The constitution means “the total disempowerment of us as ‘parents’ of this ambiguous pregnancy.” The writing is almost unbearably raw. I cannot imagine the reader who will not weep over the ravaging scenes when, in the midst of Pine’s anguish, her sister becomes pregnant but has a stillborn daughter. The sister goes on to have another baby, and Pine comes to terms with the sadness of infertility, on the one hand, and the joy of being an auntie, on the other. “From the Baby Years” ends beautifully with a quiet epiphany about her re-discovery of the happiness of her relationship with her partner. “It is difficult to translate a great love, a great life, into words on a page ... it is in the everyday moments that the tenacity of love, and its depth, are often revealed.”

Writing about the social construction of femininity, the denial of the natural female body and its functions, and institutionalised sexism, Pine turns into a powerful didact. “This paranoia, that I am not feminine enough, not desirable enough, not good enough, is the ultimate performance of femininity. This paranoia is a crucial part of how women are policed. And of how we police ourselves.” But her most devastating writing works through a process of carefully controlled revelations in which the reader is simultaneously aware not just of the awfulness of what is happening to the younger Pine but also of the incredible difficulty she faces in describing certain events. Anyone who imagines that Jimmy Savile was an anomaly needs to read her account of being a young teenager hanging out in London clubs and bars, when she got used to abusive affairs with men who knew she was still a child. There are harrowing rape scenes. Looking back, she can see that she was lonely, unhappy and lost. She can see that she was vulnerable, that she did not value herself, that she in fact relentlessly criticised herself. She sees that she needed help.

Help comes, and it comes from within. “Not having a language or a voice to articulate what it was that made me feel so alone was catastrophic.” Despite her father having made her promise she would not ‑ she becomes a writer. The process, she admits, has been painful. However, “the urge to write this feels not only dangerous and fearful and shameful, but necessary”. It represents a reclaiming of those parts of herself that she has denied. Writing makes her feel alive. “I am afraid,” she concludes. “But I am doing it anyway.”

Notes to Self arrives from the unfailingly discerning Tramp Press at a moment when young women in particular are hungry for literature that can guide them. It is part of a great flourishing of memoir and essay-writing by feminists on these islands, a bringing of due importance to the lives of women and girls which subverts the culture that has sidelined them, that did not think them worth mentioning. In one of his marvellous essays, Seamus Heaney quotes from the notebooks of George Seferis, who describes the need for poetry that is “strong enough to help”. Pine’s collection of essays is that strong.

1/10/2018

Susan McKay is an author, journalist and commentator from Derry.  She was one of the founders of the Belfast Rape Crisis Centre.  She has written extensively about feminist issues and about the Northern Irish conflict and its aftermath. Her documentaries and reports have won several awards. Her books include Bear in Mind These Dead (Faber) and Sophia’s Story (Gill and MacMillan). She currently writes for the London Review of Books, The Guardian, The Observer, The New York Times and The Irish Times, and is writing a book about the Irish border.

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