Empathy and the act of writing

Staying In

Book review
Bríd Conroy

As you would expect, seeing as I work in a bookshop, I am asked many times a week what I think about this book or that book. ‘Beauty is in the eye of the beholder’, a favourite saying of my grandmother’s, frequently comes to mind. I believe that choosing a book, and indeed enjoying a book, is a thing of beauty in and of itself – but ultimately it is a very personal thing.
What are the stories that touch us, or make us more empathic, or make us think differently about the world? Two books just released invite us to think about the world of books, the authors behind them and the effects the stories of others can have on our worldview.

Smorgasbord of insights
‘The Written World’, by Kevin Power, published by Lilliput Press, is a book of Power’s essays and reviews that have been published over a number of years in such publications as The Dublin Review of Books, The Stinging Fly, The Sunday Business Post and The Independent.  
Power’s warm up act, as such, is a personal essay entitled ‘The Lost Decade’ – an honest account of his struggle to write a follow-up to his highly acclaimed novel, ‘Bad Day in Blackrock’.  What follows is a smorgasbord of insights into many authors we may or may not have not read, a review of reviews of their books, and often philosophical discussions on the importance of their work.
In a review of Megan Nolan’s ‘Acts of Desperation’, we get to compare the intensity of an essay and how that converts or not to a novel form – with questions like, if it were a conversation, how would the pitch and tone of the voice change?  
We hear of the power of, for example, the 23 books written by Paul Howard as Ross O’Carroll-Kelly to map, expose and process the social changes occurring in Ireland in the last two decades ‘as a kind of psychological safety valve’.
Power ponders authors such as Naoise Dolan and Sally Rooney as they draw on ‘a hinterland of theoretical axioms’. He explores the moral dilemmas of authors as they create their characters. He touches on writers like American writer, philosopher, and political activist Susan Sontag, who possessed fiery moral passions that could effect social change – but who in ‘real life’, one might not want to befriend.

Beauty in the telling
Emilie Pine’s debut novel entitled ‘Ruth & Pen’, published by Hamish Hamilton, is the much-awaited follow-up to the author’s award-winning essay collection ‘Notes to Self’.  In Pine’s new book, there is much to ponder and reflect upon as we shadow the lives of two women over the course of one day in both their lives.
Pen is a young girl on her way to attend an Extinction Rebellion protest in Dublin. Ruth is a psychiatrist struggling with the fact of her husband not coming home that night. Their stories run parallel in the book. At first this threw me as I searched expectantly for the continuing plot and its meaning. Yet when I dropped this expectation, there was a beauty in the telling of their two stories as women whose paths briefly crossed on that one day, just like we all do in everyday life.
Pen is a teenager with sensory issues, which we understand to be autism. As her story unravels we get to understand the challenges she faces on a daily basis, how she navigates those challenges and the beautiful way her mind works things out. Ruth as a psychiatrist opens up other people’s thinking to help them heal themselves but struggles with her own thinking and her own healing.  
Both these books – Power’s and Pine’s – are truly unique and continue in the vein of great contemporary Irish writing.

Bríd Conroy and her husband Neil Paul run Tertulia – A Bookshop Like No Other at The Quay, Westport.