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The Wren, The Wren by Anne Enright: it may be her best book yet. Not only a triumph but a joy

Latest novel from the Booker winner explores family dynamics with wit and empathy

The Wren, The Wren
Author: Anne Enright
ISBN-13: 978-1787334601
Publisher: Jonathan Cape
Guideline Price: £18.99

In Meander, Spiral, Explode (2019), an exploration of story structure, the professor and novelist Jane Alison queries the traditional three-act dramatic arc. “Something that swells and tautens until climax, then collapses?” she asks. “Bit masculo-sexual, no?” Anne Enright’s The Wren, The Wren, which unfolds in the present while looping back to the past, offers more prolonged pleasure.

As in her previous work, including the 2007 Booker Prize-winning The Gathering, Enright’s eighth novel plumbs family dynamics and inherited trauma. It is narrated by a 23-year-old woman, Nell, in the first person and her mother, Carmel, in a close third. We also hear briefly from Carmel’s father, Phil McDaragh, a “poet of some reputation” who abandoned Carmel and her sister to move to the US when their mother was bedridden after a mastectomy, and from Connie, his new wife.

A year out of Trinity College, Nell writes copy for an “actress/eco-influencer”, captioning photos of her Maltipoos with “Mood”. She has fallen hard for a young man named Felim, which she experiences as euphoria until he becomes abusive. The product of a fling (“No darling, not everyone has a father,” Carmel tells her as a child), Nell is drawn like a moth to a flame to the unavailable and frequently absent Felim, intoxicated by the intensity of uncertainty.

Carmel, meanwhile, disdains the “mixture of cooing and shrieking” around weddings and babies, “the sound women make, she thought, when they are offering their lives up for slow destruction”. She has chosen single motherhood to avoid her mother’s fate but the trauma reverberates regardless. She dates a kind man when Nell is nine but leaves him after a hospital stay thrusts her into an unwanted role. How is it “you could nod off, wake up beside some strange man who was now yours to mind for life”? Carmel marvels. It is her daughter, then, who is the love of her life, which makes the distances between them, despite their abiding love, all the more poignant.


The story is interspersed with Phil’s pastoral poems and his translations of Irish poetry (with a hat-tip to poets Jessica Traynor and Jane Clarke for their “light, deft interventions” in the book’s acknowledgments). In the titular poem, dedicated to Carmel, the narrator holds a bird in his hand (“the wren the wren / was a panic / of feathered air”) until it escapes his grip (“my earthbound heart / of her love’s weight / relieved”), as if it is she who is doing the flying away. With echoes of Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, The Sea and John Clare’s The Wren, the title harks back to a song for the ritual of wren-killing on “the slow day after Christmas”: “The wran the wran the king of all birds, St Stephen’s Day was caught in the furze”. “It was a song Phil liked,” Carmel notes, “for the fact that it was a little vicious.”

The Wren, The Wren is also sympathetic to the precarity faced by Gen Z. Nell focuses her climate anxieties on the fate of the nightjar (“that tiny little heartbreak bird”), which is disappearing in Ireland

It is a testament to Enright’s capacious empathy that the characters emerge fully fledged. Phil’s absence as a father is peppered by sporadic postcards, and he is abusive with a girlfriend before remarrying. As clear-eyed as the novel is about his flaws, however, he is not demonised. “We who loved Phil knew, on some level, that we loved him not despite, but because of his ‘badness’ – in those days, that was quite the thing,” Connie writes to Nell, who idealises her grandfather, with tattoos of his work on her body. The societal reflections emerge organically through Enright’s nuanced characterisation and, as such, feel earned. What more do we need to know about Phil after he describes looking into a badger’s eyes as “nothing in my life, before or since, has matched that connection”?

The Wren, The Wren is also sympathetic to the precarity faced by Gen Z. Nell focuses her climate anxieties on the fate of the nightjar (“that tiny little heartbreak bird”), which is disappearing in Ireland. Although economic pressure on writers is hardly new – Phil relies on women to bankroll him – Enright deftly depicts the war of art in “late capitalism”. “I am currently obsessed by light,” Nell tells us. “It is hard to turn this into cash.” She wonders about her entanglement with Felim: “If I had a house, if I had a proper place to live, if I had what used to be called ‘a job’, would it have been a proper relationship?”

With her trademark wry wit, Enright gently pokes fun at life online: Nell stalks Felim’s ex’s social media accounts, watches videos of snail sex when she’s stoned, and dutifully logs her sexual activity on her phone: “A message tells me I haven’t had unprotected sex in this current cycle. Thanks, period app!”

Enright was honoured with the An Post Irish Book lifetime achievement award last year. Inexplicably overlooked by the Booker Prize panel for the longlist, The Wren, The Wren shows that her achievements continue apace: it may be her best book yet. Not only a triumph but a joy.

Mia Levitin

Mia Levitin

Mia Levitin, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a cultural and literary critic