Ruth & Pen by Emilie Pine review – a tale of two lives

·4 min read
<span>Photograph: Luciana Guerra/PA</span>
Photograph: Luciana Guerra/PA

Set over one day in Dublin, this gentle, empathetic debut explores love and loss through the stories of two women


As a young woman, Virginia Woolf’s Clarissa Dalloway established a theory about the problem of knowing other people. In each interaction we have, she believed, some trace of who we are is left behind; and so to know someone, “one must seek out the people who completed them; even the places”. Perhaps we should consider their encounters with culture, too: which aspects of themselves they find (and therefore we find) within works of art, music, literature.

Pen, the teenage protagonist of Emilie Pine’s debut novel, Ruth & Pen, describes Mrs Dalloway this way: “When she’d read that book by Virginia Woolf last summer, about the man with shell shock, Pen had understood why he had jumped from the window, and she had also understood how hard it was for his wife, who could not help him.” What Pen takes from Woolf’s fourth novel is equally instructive about her own character: the fact that she alights on Septimus Warren Smith, the traumatised first world war veteran, as the text’s fulcral figure. In Septimus’s sensitivity and vulnerability, Pen sees something of herself. School can be challenging for a young person with autism: she has few friends, and requires regular timeouts from class to cope with the sensory shock that each day presents.

Pen’s summation of Mrs Dalloway also offers a key to her compassionate worldview: she can feel Septimus’s pain and that of his wife at once; she can admit her own unhappiness and simultaneously recognise the ways that sadness hurts her mother, too. Throughout Ruth & Pen, opposing statements are bonded together: “It’s too late. It’s not too late”; “Run! Stay!” “The truth is: No. The truth is: Yes.” The title itself, with its prominent ampersand, is indicative of this balancing act of positions that the novel strives towards.

The chapters focusing on Pen are beautifully managed, taking seriously the experiences of a young person with autism

As in Mrs Dalloway, there are two figures around which the action orbits, and the story takes place over the course of a day – 7 October 2019 in Dublin. For the first few chapters the narrative reliably alternates between Pen and Ruth by means of a close third-person. They cross paths twice, both times briefly, at an Extinction Rebellion protest in Merrion Square, where much of Pen’s storyline takes place. She is there to meet the girl she is in love with, Alice; she plans to disclose her true feelings, finally, after the protest. The chapters focusing on Pen are beautifully managed, taking seriously the experiences of a young person with autism.

Ruth is a therapist in her 30s. On 7 October she wakes up alone. Her husband, Aidan, is away on a work trip, and she feels apprehensive about his return in the evening. For a long time, they have been locked into the same fight. For Ruth, three cycles of IVF – all those churning hormones, spikes of hope and deep valleys of disappointment – have put considerable strain on their relationship. With each failed cycle, Ruth feels she and Aidan are “losing more of ourselves”. In her view, they have reached a blind alley: she cannot go on like this and he can only see her refusal as a giving up on any potential future between them.

Ruth’s storyline is an extension and reworking of an excellent essay in Pine’s acclaimed 2018 collection, Notes to Self. From the Baby Years draws on her and her partner’s attempts to conceive, ending with their decision to forgo IVF and stop “trying” (a phrase Pine comes to hate). The voice in Notes to Self has a brilliant force to it, like the intrusive beam of a searchlight, revealing in stark detail all aspects of Pine’s various, deeply personal subjects. In Ruth & Pen the intensity of feeling is diluted, not just by the third-person perspective, but by the introduction of further voices as the story progresses. Aidan, Alice and Pen’s mother, Claire, all get their own chapters. And they, like Ruth and Pen, are decent, well-intentioned people. While this ensures that Ruth & Pen develops into a gentle, empathetic novel, the sharpness of thought that is so propulsive in Notes to Self is missing.

In a 1923 diary entry, Woolf wrote of her intentions for Mrs Dalloway: “I want to give life & death, sanity & insanity; I want to criticise the social system, & to show it at work, at its most intense.” Woolf’s novel is charged because of these conflicting elements, which are held in tension by means of two primary characters that exist as dark doubles for each other. There is not enough friction, not enough pressure between the protagonists of Ruth & Pen; its coordinative, paratactic style of “both/and” is the final limitation to its success.

• Ruth & Pen by Emilie Pine is published by Hamish Hamilton (£14.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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