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

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.

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