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5 September 2023

Anne Enright’s damaged lives

In The Wren, The Wren, the Irish author rigorously traces the line between love and trauma.

By Erica Wagner

Anne Enright’s striking new novel begins with an unlikely sidestep. Nell is ruminating on the work of a psychologist “who is interested in the different ways people think”. In 2009, Nell tells us, he fitted a young woman with a beeper that prompted her to jot down her random thoughts at any moment, creating a record of the disconnection between the events in the young woman’s life and her perception and imagination. As Nell reflects: “We don’t walk down the same street as the person walking beside us. All we can do is tell the other person what we see. We can point at things and try to name them. If we do this well, our friend can look at the world in a new way. We can meet.”

Enright’s literary career has demonstrated her skill in tracking these meetings – or the way in which these meetings fail to happen – particularly within families. The Gathering, which won the Booker Prize in 2007, examined the reverberations of a suicide, analysing layers of wounding with dark precision. The Green Road (2015) tracks the outward and inward journeys of the Madigan siblings as they spin out from each other and reconnect. In Actress (2020), Norah recollects the life of her mother, Katherine O’Dell – the actress in question – and interweaves it with her own. The Wren, The Wren might almost be considered a companion volume to that novel, for while it centres on a daughter, Nell, and her mother, Carmel, these two women’s lives are shaped by the legacy of Carmel’s father, a famous Irish poet called Phil McDaragh. We discover how his choices – his charisma, pain and carelessness – detonate through generations.

Enright asks how we understand our experiences – without ever putting the question, by simply showing, with fearless observation and precise, gorgeous language, her characters’ lives colliding and intersecting. Nell lives an untethered, Gen Z life, writing travel pieces, trying to work up a Twitter following, creating yoga-based content for an influencer called Meg. She falls for Felim, and Enright delineates with perfect brilliance the coercion that she tolerates from him. As she leaves his flat: “Always the same excruciation about the latch, an urge to lean back against the wood once the click happened and the door was solid behind me.”

[See also: Still fighting the history wars]

Carmel, Nell’s mother, waits for her grown daughter’s visit home, with a mixture of anticipation and ­frustration. Nell’s father, Edgardo, is “an arrogant young man who would grow up to be, one day, a powerful fool” who disappears from Carmel’s life once she falls pregnant. Yet Enright gives Carmel agency in this: she is a character who will not suffer fools. Later in the book she falls into a seemingly companionable sexual relationship with a man but pulls away sharply from his neediness. Carmel glimpses the woman she knows to be her father’s first lover at his funeral and considers her coldly: “She looked unf***ably old.”

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The novel is constructed with a fluid confidence. Nell’s sections are narrated in the first person; Carmel’s in the third. Interspersed are McDaragh’s poems, some of them original and some are translations from the Irish, like an elegant version of the traditional song “Ceann Dubh Dílis” (Enright’s poetry really deserves a review of its own).

There is too a brief interlude from Phil himself, a section of a memoir recalling a rural childhood that describes, with plainspoken relish, a brutal episode of badger baiting. And indeed, violence always seems just under the surface: a physical fight that flares up seemingly from nowhere is all the more powerful for its unexpectedness, the control in Enright’s account of it. That formal control is seen too in a letter from Connie – Phil’s second wife, who ends up as the guardian of his literary estate – which is both soothing and commanding (“What an absolute joy to hear from you”). 

The title’s wren – king of the birds, traditionally killed on St Stephen’s Day – flits through the book. In McDaragh’s poem for his daughter the bird is “a panic/of feathered air/in my opening hand/so fierce and light/I did not feel/the push/of her ascent/away from me”; much later, the wren is a badly drawn tattoo nestled between Nell’s thumb and forefinger. “If we are very lucky, the bird will always be the bird,” Enright writes. 

Enright’s compelling, subtle work allows but does not insist on meaning. The book is full of the symbols of love and damage: it’s up to the reader to decide which is which.

The Wren, The Wren
Anne Enright
Jonathan Cape, 273pp, £18.99

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[See also: Zadie Smith: The reluctant historical novelist]

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This article appears in the 06 Sep 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Crumbling Britain