Ahe young woman, Clarissa Dalloway of Virginia Woolf established a theory about the problem of knowing others. In every interaction we have, she believed, a trace of who we are is left behind; and so to know someone, “you have to look for the people who finished him off; even the places. Perhaps we should also consider their encounters with culture: what aspects of themselves they find (and therefore we find) in works of art, music, literature.
Pen, the teenage protagonist of Emilie Pine’s debut novel Ruth & Pen, describes Ms Dalloway thus: “When she read that book by Virginia Woolf last summer, about the man in shock, Pen understood why he jumped out of the window, and she also understood how hard it was for his wife, who couldn’t help it. What Pen takes from Woolf’s fourth novel is equally instructive about her own character: the fact that she comes across Septimus Warren Smith, the traumatized World War I veteran, as the central figure of the text. In Septimus’ sensitivity and vulnerability, Pen sees something of herself. School can be difficult for a young person with autism: they have few friends and need regular downtime to deal with the sensory shock that each day presents.
Pen’s summary of Mrs. Dalloway also offers a key to her compassionate worldview: she can feel Septimus’ pain and his wife’s at the same time; she can admit her own unhappiness and simultaneously recognize the ways in which sadness also hurts her mother. Throughout Ruth & Pen, opposing statements follow: “It’s too late. It is not too late”; “Course! To stay!“The truth is: No. The truth is: Yes. The title itself, with its prominent ampersand, is indicative of this balance of positions towards which the novel strives.
As in Mrs Dalloway, there are two characters around which the action revolves, and the story takes place over one day – October 7, 2019 in Dublin. For the early chapters, the narrative alternates reliably between Pen and Ruth by means of a close third person. They cross paths twice, both times briefly, during an Extinction Rebellion protest in Merrion Square, where much of Pen’s story takes place. She is there to meet the girl she is in love with, Alice; she plans to divulge her true feelings, finally, after the protest. The Pen-focused chapters are beautifully handled, taking the experiences of a young autistic seriously.
Ruth is a therapist in her thirties. On October 7, she wakes up alone. Her husband, Aidan, is away on a business trip and she is worried about his return in the evening. For a long time they were locked in the same fight. For Ruth, three rounds of IVF — all those seething hormones, spikes of hope, and deep valleys of disappointment — put a strain on their relationship. With each failed cycle, Ruth feels like she and Aidan “lose more of ourselves.” According to her, they are at an impasse: she cannot go on like this and he can only see in her refusal a renunciation of any potential future between them.
Ruth’s Script is an expansion and reworking of an excellent essay from Pine’s acclaimed 2018 collection, Notes to Self. From the Baby Years builds on her and her partner’s attempts at conception, 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, like the intrusive beam of a spotlight, revealing in minute detail every aspect 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 other voices as the story progresses. Aidan, Alice and Pen’s mother, Claire, all have their own chapters. And they, like Ruth and Pen, are decent, well-meaning 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 absent.
In a 1923 diary entry, Woolf wrote of her intentions for Mrs. Dalloway: “I want to give life and death, sanity and madness; I want to criticize the social system and show it at work, at its most intense. Woolf’s novel is charged because of these contradictory elements, which are kept in tension by means of two main characters who exist as dark doubles for each other. There is not enough friction, not enough pressure between the protagonists of Ruth & Pen; his co-ordinating and paratactic “both/and” style is the last limit to his success.