Notes to Self: Essays by Emilie Pine, review: Messy raw experience is transformed into meaningful, honed prose

These essays are so personal they read more like a memoir – and the author is acutely aware of how she’s shaping the story of her life

Lucy Scholes
Thursday 26 July 2018 13:46
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Irish academic Emilie Pine’s probing essay collection Notes to Self is the small, independent Dublin-based publisher Tramp Press’s first foray into nonfiction. It’s easy to see how Pine’s voice tempted them to try something new, though. Her writing is clear and urgent, the kind that makes you sit up and take notice.

“By the time we find him,” begins the first piece, “he has been lying in a small pool of his own shit for several hours.” The collection’s tone is set here in this first essay, Pine is committed to exposing the blood and guts of life and death.

“Notes on Intemperance” is a strong opener. It tells the story of her father’s alcoholism, beginning with the liver failure that sees him end up on what’s colloquially known as “the dying ward” in a horrifically understaffed, underfunded Corfu hospital. It’s an essay about the pain of being the child of an addict, but there’s love here too.

It’s Pine’s father – also an academic – who taught 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”. Notes to Self is the product of this act of metamorphosis: within its pages, messy raw experience is transformed into meaningful, honed prose.

She writes about growing up in a single parent family and the “layers of silence” within her parents broken marriage. She describes her experience of miscarriage and infertility after having decided she wants a baby. Then there’s her mounting anger about the things women traditionally haven’t been encouraged to discuss when it comes to their bodies, especially “the silence and secrecy and the warped idea that blood is taboo when it comes out of a vagina”.

Just when we’ve read enough to think we know her, she throws us a curveball in the form of “Something About Me”, an account of her unexpectedly wild teenage years. These essays are so personal – she writes about her experiences of sexual violence, and the final piece, “This is Not on the Exam”, deals with the misogyny she’s encountered in the workplace – the collection actually often reads more like memoir.

No doubt many will be calling Pine brave – the go-to description for a woman writer exposing herself on the page – but the truth is in recent years we’ve come to expect nothing less than intimate confession from female practitioners working in the fields of personal essays and memoir.

As such, I don’t quite buy the publisher’s claim that the collection “breaks new ground”, but Notes to Self is still well worth reading – not just for Pine’s no nonsense honestly when it comes to subjects many of us still aren’t comfortable discussing, but also because she’s acutely aware of how she’s shaped the story of her life in these pages.

“I’ve only given you the bad bits,” she explains at the end of “Something About Me”. “And in writing it this way, the bad bits become the whole story.”

’Notes to Self’ is published by Tramp Press

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