Non-fiction – essays; Tramp Press*; 190 pages; 2018.
Notes to Self is a deeply personal collection of essays by Irish academic Emilie Pine. The pieces are all themed around Emilie’s life and are astonishing in their frankness and honesty.
There are six essays, the majority of which are framed around what it is to be a woman in the 21st century, forging a career, trying to start a family and caring for vulnerable parents. Taken collectively, the book could also be classified as a memoir.
The opening essay, “Notes on Temperance”, sets the tone for the entire book, for in it Pine tells the story of how, together with her sister, they “rescued” their father, an alcoholic, from a decrepit Greek hospital where they feared he would die.
By the time we find him, he has been lying in a pool of his own shit for several hours.
The essay charts their efforts to help a man who does not want to be helped, flying from Ireland and Corfu, and back again, numerous times to ensure his well-being; how they got him back to Dublin for a bit before he took it upon himself to return to Greece; how Pine learns to respect her father’s “principled stubbornness” and admires his talent as a writer; and how she came to understand that the emotional labour of looking after a poorly parent might make her “heart race” but comes with its own rewards: “an ever-changing conversation between two people, father and daughter”.
In “The Baby Years” she explains her struggles with infertility (“Do I want kids? I agonised for years”) and how, when she finally got pregnant, the baby dies in-utero.
On October 18th I am admitted for what they call an ERPC. It’s another terrible acronym; this one translates as ‘the evacuation of retained products of conception’.
Similarly, the essay “Notes on Bleeding and Other Crimes” looks at the intimate biology of what it is to be female and to experience menstruation — the bloody mess of it, the pain of it, the surprise of it, the sometimes embarrassing times we are caught out by it — from our teenage years to perimenopause.
For three decades I have lived within a silence that declares periods too embarrassing, too unwanted, too female to talk about out loud. […] To hell with covering up, with being embarrassed, with being silent.
There are other essays about what it is like to grow up in Ireland with parents who have separated (“Speaking/Not Speaking”), about her troubled adolescence in which drugs and sex and a wild-child attitude reined (“Something About Me”) and, finally, about sexism in the workplace, particularly academia (“This is not on the Exam”).
And while Pine writes from her own personal experiences living and working in Ireland, there is a universality about the topics covered that will resonate with many women regardless of background or upbringing.
There are a lot of home truths in Notes to Self, and the frankness is, at times, breathtaking in its audacity and crudity. But Pine is not afraid to break taboos, to shine a light on uncomfortable topics, to shake off the shame often attached to them and to show that resilience and bravery come in many forms.
It is a superlative read.
* Please note this book has since been picked up and republished by Penguin.
If you like this, you might also like:
‘Constellations: Reflections of Life’ by Sinead Gleeson: a collection of 14 extraordinary, life-affirming and very personal essays covering the author’s own experience of sickness, health, motherhood and grief.
This is my 15th book for #TBR21 in which I’m planning to read 21 books from my TBR between 1 January and 31 May 2021. I purchased it from Dublin, Ireland, not long after it was released in 2018, and carried it in my suitcase when I repatriated to Australia in June 2019.