I have long been a fan of Anne Enright's fiction and in her latest novel, The Wren, The Wren, the Booker prize winning Irish writer is her reliably intimate, earthy, sensual self. Told through a shifting third person narrator, the novel is about a mother and daughter descended from a well-known poet who had abandoned his wife when she became ill. A daughter from that marriage is Carmel, and when she becomes a mother early in her adult life, she chooses to raise her daughter by herself. That daughter, Nell, a texting, instagramming, social media virtuoso is a sensual, twenty something who will steal the reader's heart.
The grand progenitor of it all, the poet, is a fictional figure and his poems—seven of them appear in the pages of the novel—are captivating, not only because they are rich in natural imagery, but jaunty, rhythmic, and expressive of a reverence for the natural world. The family myth is about how the young girl who became his wife and the mother of his daughters, was seduced by this poetry and throughout his life, it is his literary acumen that attracts female attention. But Enright wisely puts his story in the background, because there are the poems themselves and they capture his essence in a refreshingly concrete and specific way. There is only one chapter from his point of view and that's all we need.
The other chapters shift between Carmel, his youngest and favorite daughter, and her daughter, Nell, and in both women we can see the long-term effects of his brief but enduring presence as Carmel's father. How these two women conduct themselves with the opposite sex is the territory this novel claims and what a rich and interesting place it is! Carmel, once pregnant, has no interest in an ongoing relationship with the father, but Nell, who is immediately attracted to the wrong kind of man, does want to be with a mate.
The pleasures of this novel are, first, the characters. There is well grounded, no-nonsense Carmel and floaty, funny, deeply observant Nell. The second pleasure is what Enright does with language. Through Nell, in both her strange and somewhat faltering career, we experience, on the page, how the compression and fragmentation of communication necessary in social media rearranges sentences and transforms thought:
"He sends a text,
-Yeah, good I say, and there is nothing for many hours.
The next morning I try,
-You? And he says,
-Ng which could mean anything. Then later
He sends a picture of his desk. I look at it, enlarge it. The desk has a curved front and fits into a corner space..."(47).
Enright doesn't judge this fragmentation of language but instead, let's us see how it affects relationships. As Nell chops and dices her sentences to message him, the movement of her thought and the growth of her frustration with this evasive man becomes transparent. Every time the prose line shifts to the more intimate distance of texting, and it occurs infrequently enough that it always feels fresh, Nell and the reader enter a place of stasis together. Nothing much gets said, but words are made and what we notice, of course, is that the lines of text look and sound not only like the bird song Nell takes note of, but the sonorous poems her grandfather wrote.
The seven poems, used as chapter breaks in the novel, communicate many things to the reader, but first, we are made to understand that they are revered and treasured by the Irish people.
When Nell's first boyfriend, Felim, the "He" in the above excerpt, brings her to the country to meet his family and see the farm, his grandmother recognizes the last name.
"You're the daughter
Oh he was a rare one.
Ah, no. I am the granddaughter.
You are very welcome here, she said. And I thought I would run screaming out of the house tearing my hair and ripping off my clothes. I would streak naked through the near field and the long field and the fucking far field and there I would live, crouched and mad in the ditch. I also felt as though I had come home.
Thank you, I said" (44).
Enright takes us to the center of this emotional tangle, where Nell enjoys the glow of her grandfather's fame at the same time that she hates the man who abandoned her mother, aunt, and grandmother. Sure enough, the poem we arrive at a few pages later is a love poem called "A Scent of Thyme." Here's the first verse:
Lay your dark head upon my breast,
your honey mouth with scent of thyme
what man could not love you – so blest
and sweet, oh love, sweet love of mine (55).
Feeling these lovely rhythms, but knowing what I know, watching how Felim treats Nell, the intent of the poem shifts. The words seem slippery and aggressive and I can't
help but think of the rapturous male as vicious. I, the reader, have learned what Nell has learned: beautiful language cannot be trusted.
"The Wren, The Wren" is the title for a poem we don't see until a third of the way through the novel. As the poet recounts his experience holding a wren in "the cup/of my fist" for the moment until the bird escaped, leaving his palm "pin-pricked," his "earthbound heart of her love's weight relieved," the irony that this is the poem the poet writes for his daughter Carmel is not lost on the reader. The father left the nest and flew away, leaving his wife and daughters pin-pricked and earthbound.
By creating the actual poems of her fictional poet, Enright lets her readers enter the charmed circle of his vision to experience, for themselves, the magnetism of the bard until, knowing more,we read them differently. That is, we see them as duplicitous. In this way, the poems become crucibles, holding not only the character of the poet, but the anger and hurt the women feel. It is an intensity that makes all of it—the story, the poems, the characters—feel charged and active. More exciting, the poems give Nell the tools she needs to resist the family myth of the golden tongued bard and see the world with fresh, ordinary, non-literary eyes.
What this novel models for me as a writer is that the actual products or structures a character creates—poems, paintings, spreadsheets—could add a different kind of texture to the narrative, but also, on their own, become yet another way for the reader to feel the vitality of the character.
Enright, Anne. The Wren, The Wren. New York: W.W. Norton, 2023.