The Wren, the Wren: A Novel
- By Anne Enright
- W.W. Norton & Company
- 288 pp.
- Reviewed by Jennifer Bort Yacovissi
- September 28, 2023
A stirring tale of family bonds forged by absence.
It’s inconceivable, really, that I have not read Anne Enright before now. I’ve had a hardcover copy of 2015’s The Green Road since the year it came out (though the same could be said of many even older books on my TBR stack). I also read about her books frequently.
My solution to this alarming oversight was to experience four of her novels at the same time. While reading the print version of her latest, The Wren, the Wren, I listened to The Gathering, for which Enright won the Man Booker Prize, The Forgotten Waltz, and Actress. This allows me to say that if you’ve enjoyed the author’s previous books, her latest will not disappoint.
The Wren, the Wren features a chain of familial relationships defined most clearly by absence. Nell is daughter to Carmel, who is daughter to Phil. Phil McDaragh was a famous poet who abandoned his family — including his wife, Terry, and Carmel’s older sister, Imelda —while Terry was recovering from a mastectomy.
We meet him in 12-year-old Carmel’s memory as he harangues his bandaged, bedridden spouse over a cheap watch he has misplaced, stripping the sheets she lies upon, ripping a drawer out of the bedside locker. And then he is gone, eventually decamping to America for a divorce and remarriage, neither of which is recognized in Ireland.
(The most lacerating observation in the book — derived from an almost-verbatim quote that Enright says inspired the novel — comes when Phil speaks “as though he could not hear his own words — that his wife got sick and the marriage did not survive. He said this as though everyone listening would know that, when a woman gets sick, the marriage deteriorates, clearly, the relationship cannot be sustained.” Certainly, Newt Gingrich would understand.)
But the relationship at the center of the story belongs to Carmel and Nell, a rhyming couplet who have trouble being in the same room, though they quietly long to be there together.
The story hangs most centrally on Carmel, the link who connects the chain, but we first hear her described from Nell’s perspective, which of course colors our assessment: Her mother is tactless, unimaginative, practical to the point of coldness, but a staunch protector. “You can’t tell Carmel you have a problem,” says Nell, “or she’ll go and beat someone up for you.”
If, in The Gathering, the household was a tumble of children and overly fertile parents and mess and scrabbling for scraps, Nell’s girlhood home was orderly and generous and made up of just the two of them. Carmel bought Nell whatever she wanted for Christmas, as long as Nell stated exactly what it was. The year Nell asked Santa for a surprise, “something I could not imagine. I wanted a present that Santa had chosen just for me,” she got a coat.
Unlike in Actress, where paternity is a central mystery for the daughter, Nell’s own is of no particular interest; her conception may as well have been immaculate. Indeed, Carmel’s brief, inappropriate fling with the younger Edgardo merits little mention.
But Nell’s arrival is an awakening. “Carmel had been alone all her life. Did I mention that? She had been alone since she was twelve years old. The baby knew all this. The baby carried the whole black universe with her, in the pupil of her eye.” And that’s just the first glance.
As Nell’s and Carmel’s stories weave around each other, it’s easy to lose track of which woman’s tale is centered at any given moment. It feels a shame that Nell couldn’t know her mother as a young woman, as we come to know her. Instead, she gets the overly hungry version of Carmel that exhausts them both, one filled with a fierce need too consuming to articulate that prevents Nell from sharing anything meaningful about her own life — including an abusive relationship — with her mother.
We get to know Phil, too, not just through his poetry, but in his recounting to us of snippets from his childhood: of the priest who accidentally shaped him into a poet, of the brutal, communal sport of badger-baiting, and of young Hanorah Casey, whose father hacks off her beautiful black braid because she is seen walking with Phil. In a pattern he is destined to repeat, Phil — the source of Hanorah’s ruin — despises her in her shame.
Still, he wins all his women’s hearts through poetry; “The Wren, The Wren” is a poem he writes for Carmel, proving to her child self that she is his favorite. Even Nell, who has never known her grandfather, takes solace in his words when her too-practical mother won’t comfort her — until, as an adult, she watches an old TV interview and perceives his unfeeling black eyes beneath those romantic lashes.
As he tells the interviewer in explaining that unrequited love is the only kind, “It’s not the girl, it is not one girl or another girl, it is the fact that she is not there. And when she is gone, there is none like her.” Unfortunately, Phil seems never to grasp that, each time, there is a girl, a woman, a real person who trails in his wake — not gone, but left behind, abandoned.
Ah, but what poetry results from the wreckage! Great art surely makes up for any damage done by the artist, doesn’t it?
It’s been a pleasure getting to know Anne Enright in one great wash of words. Her voice is captivating (indeed, literally so: She narrates the audiobook version of Actress, and it’s gorgeous). And in case you completists are wondering, I’ve now also finished The Green Road. Looks like I’ll be consuming the rest of the Enright canon forthwith. I’ll meet you there.
Jennifer Bort Yacovissi’s debut novel, Up the Hill to Home, tells the story of four generations of a family in Washington, DC, from the Civil War to the Great Depression. Her short fiction has appeared in Gargoyle and Pen-in-Hand. Jenny reviews regularly for the Independent and serves on its board of directors as president. She has served as chair or program director of the Washington Writers Conference since 2017, and for several recent years was president of the Annapolis chapter of the Maryland Writers’ Association. Stop by Jenny’s website for a collection of her reviews and columns, and follow her on Twitter at @jbyacovissi.