Anne Enright: The Wren
The title refers in part to a song though more particularly to a (fictitious) poem though the bird itself makes numerous appearances, clearly a symbol relating to one of the key characters.
Our first main character is Nell. She writes online articles, mainly, she says about travel to places she has never been to as well as for an Instagram influencer. For fun she seems to watch online videos about cochlear implants (yes, apparently it is a thing) and animals, particularly about people rescuing animals in distress and often paying a price for doing so. I look at a video clip of a talking raven while my friend Lily worries about fascism, and while my friends are breaking the back of the patriarchy I start to cry about the unbearable fate of the bees.
Two key things happen early on. She was living with her mother, Carmel, another key character . However Much as I love my mother, much as I love that fabulous fridge, the free heating, the coffee grinder with whole, organic beans, much as I love reading on the sofa while she shifts and grunts over her Sudoku, I really did need to get away and she does moving to a damp room in a run-down street, whose only attraction was the fact that she was not in it.
The other key event is that she falls in love. They meet now and again then meet at a party and have sex. Just as she is leaving, she realises she has fallen love. He is Felim. They start a desultory affair. He comes and goes. He looks at his phone a lot. She visits her mother. She worries that things are going nowhere. Then one day he turns up and takes her to the baptism of his brother’s son, where she meets the family for the first time. Indeed, she had been unaware he had a brother. She meets his grandmother who recognises her surname (McDaragh). She turns out to be the granddaughter of Phil McDaragh, a famous Irish poet who died before Nell was born.
We now move to her mother’s story which, of course, includes her father, the poet, and her mother, wife of Phil, called Terry. When we first meet them Terry is recovering from a mastectomy and is not well. Her two teenage daughters are there, Carmel and her sister, Imelda, who continually bullies Carmel. Phil may be a great poet but he is a lousy husband and father. When a woman gets sick, the marriage deteriorates, clearly, the relationship cannot be sustained, he later says.
We follow Phil’s story – he heads for the US – and has not much contact with his wife and daughters though he does write a poem called The Wren dedicated to Carmel.
We also follow Carmel’s story which involves helping her sister care for their mother and then making her own way and she does quite well, helped by the fact that she has given up men after a few casual flings. But we know she has a child and a casual fling results in Nell. At that time in Ireland, abortion and divorce were illegal and unmarried mothers frowned upon. 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. She drifts along, has another unsuccessful relationship and seems to become the nursemaid/carer of her boyfriend, rather than his lover How had she ended up with this job, for which she had never applied? Was it the sex – which got good for about two minutes and then wasn’t? She is not the only woman in this book who ends up more of a carer than a lover.
Well into the book we meet the young Phil, He enjoys nature, meets the fairies and is seen as a dreamer. Much later in the book, in an interview on TV, seen later by his daughters and granddaughter, we learn of his lack of self-awareness:
You have a great understanding of women,’ the interviewer said, apropos of nothing.
‘I think I do,’ said Phil.
‘What goes on in their minds.’
This is, at least from the author’s point of view, ironic as he clearly completely fails to understand women.
Meanwhile his granddaughter, Nell, decides travelling will set her free and gallivants round the world, having sex (of course) and writing travel articles on places she has actually visited.
All the main characters in this book are lost souls. This is partially because of their parents but seems to be what they are. Can we blame DNA for the women being lost? I am not convinced. The younger ones live on the Internet. Nell’s thumbs flying on her screen – as though late capitalism (as she liked to call it) could be defeated by hashtags and eating kimchi. She watches YouTube/TikTok videos and blogs, her boyfriend follows football and watches porn. If they read a book, apart from Phil’s poems, it is not mentioned. Nell does take up travel but this seems to more for her career and, if I can use that phrase, to find herself than any deep-seated desire to explore other cultures or learn more of the world.
Of course, all the women are victims of men. Nell’s and Carmel’s boyfriends seem to be the ones that decide when they will meet, when they will have sex. Felim is violent. Carmel’s and her sister Imelda’s boyfriends want a carer rather than lover and, as we know, Phil is thoroughly irresponsible, abandoning his wife when she has breast cancer.
I have to admit that I did not really enjoy this book. I cannot identify with the TikTok generation and, while feeling sorry for all the main female characters, I kept looking for the positive but it never came. However, if Enright’s point is that many men behave badly towards the women in their lives, I cannot disagree.
First published in 2023 by Jonathan Cape