The Wren, The Wren 
by Anne Enright.
Cape, 288 pp., £18.99, August 2023, 978 1 78733 460 1
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Nell,​ the narrator of Anne Enright’s The Wren, The Wren, can’t imagine real words coming out of her boyfriend’s mouth. ‘When I think about him talking, all he says is: Bloke, bloke bloke bloke. Blokey bloking bloke, bloke-bloke bloking.’ The boyfriend in question, Felim, a tall, taciturn farmer’s son, built like ‘a plastic model of what-goes-where’, turns out to have an interest in choking and taking non-consensual photographs of women. Alarm bells ring, or should do, when he calls Betty Davis ‘Miles Davis’s first wife’. Nell is a recent Trinity graduate, living in a grim Dublin houseshare and making money writing blogs about luxury holidays she’s never been on (‘Ngunwi beach, famed for its sugary sand and still, aquamarine sea, lies at the very northernmost tip of tropical Zanzibar …’). From time to time, she goes home to her mother, Carmel, to be fed and quizzed about her life, which is unsatisfying for both parties because Carmel is relentlessly practical and calls self-reflection having ‘too much imagination’.

Felim is bad, but none of the novel’s male characters are much to write home about. Nell’s university friend Mal is flaky and given to disappearing acts; her housemate Stuart leaves his washing in the machine until it stinks. Carmel, whose story is threaded through Nell’s, admits to preferring men to women but knows few good ones personally. There is Edgardo, an ‘arrogant young man’ who got her pregnant and then broke things off: ‘At home, I have a woman.’ Ronan, a later boyfriend, is a great talker and imparter of information, preoccupied with ‘the sad business of correcting the world’s many misconceptions’. (On local geography: ‘Take the Liffey, for example – he was sorry, but that was not the name of the river, it was what they called the alluvial plain.’) In the background, dimly seen, are all the interchangeable dudes, ‘solid, back-slapping, sound’, who marry her friends and overuse phrases like ‘in all fairness’.

Some are more dangerous than others. The men who are hardest to know, in Nell’s view, are those who go through life underexplained, to themselves and others. ‘Felim is “thinking about the football”,’ he says, when she wants to know what’s on his mind – no more, no less. ‘This is what men tell you they are thinking, if you ever ask them. And of course these men are telling the truth. Although, under the football … something else stirring, some big old lizard with a flickering tongue.’ ‘I have never trusted men who pray,’ Veronica, the narrator of Enright’s The Gathering (2007), says, peering over at a neighbour doing his Hail Marys. ‘Women have no option, of course – but what do men think about, when they are on their knees?’ Carmel, who doesn’t wonder and can’t see the lizards beneath the football, admires men’s straightforwardness, their ability to ‘just get on with it’. ‘Men turn up on time, because it’s not that complicated,’ she tells Nell. ‘Like fascism and trains,’ her daughter replies.

There is one man – dubiously, treacherously simple – whom neither of them can quite shake off. Phil McDaragh, Carmel’s father and Nell’s grandfather, is a haunting presence of the sort that often hangs over Enright’s fiction: dead but definitely not forgotten, pulling the strings of the living. Phil, famous in the 1970s and 1980s, is remembered by his fans as ‘the finest love poet of his generation’ – a maker of plangent, sub-Yeatsian lyrics rooted in imagery of flowers and birds. Enright intersperses the novel with samples of his work, which succeed in being both beautiful and a bit repellent (‘Lay your dark head upon my breast,/your honey mouth with scent of thyme’). Middle-aged men find his work irresistible. ‘You have a great understanding of women,’ a TV interviewer tells him in footage Nell and Carmel find on YouTube. The women who knew Phil are less sure. Carmel remembers fits of rage, the bad days where you could expect ‘a clatter upside the head’, and the moment Phil banged out of the family home for good, leaving his daughters to care for their sick mother. At his funeral, shortly before Carmel’s final school exams, a conspicuously American second wife shows up, ‘dressed like Jackie Kennedy’ in what might be Chanel. There are rumours of a nasty episode on Mykonos with a third woman. ‘He threw a girl into the street once, in her nightie,’ a stranger tells Carmel at the wake. ‘Desperate stuff.’

Phil’s poetry is both self-revealing and self-obscuring: it papers over the moral cracks. Damage is mythologised away, people frozen into emblems. What happened to the girl on Mykonos wasn’t real, we’re given to understand, but metaphorical, part of an ancient pattern: ‘Persephone leaves her throne/nine seeds of bright blood/braceleted about the bone.’ To Carmel, reassessing her father many years later, all this has a dangerous thinness to it, ‘some special kind of stupid, that the world took for wise’. She herself is opposed to anything obscure, hazy, that smacks of poetic disingenuousness or self-aggrandisement. When she meets Ronan for the first time, things swerve briefly off-course after he confesses to being an admirer of Phil’s: ‘He asked Carmel did she write poetry and she told him to fuck off.’ Nell gets a tattoo of one of her grandfather’s famous lines (‘love is a tide’) below her collarbone; when Carmel sees it, she turns on her best ‘beige voice’, which succeeds in hiding nothing. ‘Well, if you like it … then I do too.’ Communicating with her can be tricky, Nell observes, because suggestion and implication will not wash. ‘You have to explain everything to her. You have to construct full sentences and be specific.’

Constructing full sentences and explaining everything are not what this book is about. Nell’s sections, narrated in the first person, and Carmel’s, in the third, are built from fragments, slices of experience that jump backwards and forwards in time. The two perspectives are discontinuous, split from one another by Phil’s poems. Nothing hooks neatly together. ‘I think there is a real gap between me and the next person, there is a space between every human being,’ Nell says. What look like patterns in the novel – the way it loops back to key places and objects – are more like loose threads, measures of the characters’ isolation. Phil, Carmel and Nell make separate visits to the Uffizi in Florence, each noticing and remembering different things. Phil writes floridly about the ‘beauty all arrayed’, the wonder of the ‘masters’, ‘the Bronzinos especially’ (large, showy, expensive). Nell is struck by the many naked bodies on display, the endless breasts and ‘tinily endowed’ Jesus babies. You aren’t supposed to go to the Uffizi and find mistakes, but someone should tell the truth about all those ‘anatomically incorrect’ penises: ‘Hard to describe, but the ballsack is somehow hung around the whole base of the shaft and not from underneath it.’ Everything seems to her bizarre, or, worse, a lie. In the history paintings, ‘groups of pale, serene people gaze off in different directions doing very bad acting indeed.’ How to think about their narrative scenarios except as decidedly fishy? ‘Oh, I am being born from the waves. Oh, I am getting pregnant talking to an angel.’

Enright’s way of shuttling between perspectives shows characters trapped in their own heads, failing to communicate. Carmel likens conversations with her daughter as a little girl to ‘talking to a doll’, a process of exchanging words but sharing nothing: ‘Nell said Yes or Nell said No.’ In bed with Felim, Nell quotes Blake (‘The cut worm forgives the plough’) in a bid to appeal to what this farmer’s son might like; confused, he spins it for a joke. ‘A long time since I was ploughing anything … excepting women.’ Later, their desultory post-coital chat becomes a battleground, a means of acquiring or relinquishing power. ‘He wasn’t listening to me, he was storing it all up.’ Memory’s vicissitudes make things worse. Carmel and her sister, Imelda, retain different versions of key moments from their childhood: what was Phil up to the day he burst into their mother’s sickroom, ransacking drawers and rifling under her duvet – hunting for a watch he had lost or making the bed, smoothing the sheets to make her comfortable? ‘The people who did know him – herself and her sister, especially – could not agree.’

Memory’s tricks and false trails are a theme of Enright’s work, particularly as they intersect with larger cultural habits of inventing and forgetting. ‘In Ireland the imagination is still held in high regard,’ she notes in Making Babies (2004). ‘“Making things up” is a normal and often social activity.’ Keeping secrets, pushing things down, creates a vacuum, a space for invention: in the end, ‘all silences are the same, and each silence contains anything you can imagine.’ In The Gathering, the Hegarty family’s inertia shows up starkly against Veronica’s mobile, shapeshifting narration, which arranges, replays, conjures whole alternative paths. ‘I can twist them as far as you like, here on the page; make them endure all kinds of protraction, bliss, mindlessness, abjection, release,’ Veronica says of Ada, her grandmother, and a man Ada may or may not have had sex with. Anything can be done, or undone: ‘There is something immoral about the mind’s eye.’ Carmel is aware her memory contains gaps, that it can correct reality or be corrected. What she ‘knows’ about her family’s past, in the course of the novel, changes. As a teenager, she finds the story of the woman thrown out in her nightdress impossible to believe; later, things start to add up and submerged images float to the surface. (‘She was the stranger at the gate, holding on to the bars with red woollen gloves.’) There are other things, particularly in relation to her father, on which her memory snags. A nasty image recurs of the butcher’s she visited every day for Phil’s supper – the smell of it, pine dust over ‘sweetish rot’, the blue-eyed butcher with his red, bloody hands. ‘Death makes you think about meat,’ Enright once remarked in an interview.

One thing the novel is sure of is that there is no such thing as completion, or a fresh start. Many of its images are variations on the theme of traces, leftovers, the aspects of self or history you can’t quite redeem or get rid of. Long after the end of their relationship, Nell snoops on Felim’s family farm from Google Earth, obsessively zooming in on images of barns and fields. Imelda, having inherited the house in Dun Laoghaire after her parents’ deaths, continues to live there alone ‘like some kind of remnant’, trying and failing to redecorate (‘She painted one wall, but not the whole room’). Their mother, in Carmel’s memory, is glimpsed in bits and pieces: a ‘discarded dressing gown’, a set of ‘forgotten clothes’, the gauze mastectomy bandages that fly out of the bin on a windy day. Marginal things stick. Nell is aware of being ‘a throwaway thing’ herself: for the abusive Felim, for the influencers who pay her, for the landlord who exploits her. ‘I am his leavings,’ she thinks, noticing Felim’s habit of dumping unfinished Pot Noodles and half-drunk cups. ‘Mostly gone, a bit to go … I am the thing he cannot finish or throw away.’

What lingers longest, becoming a kind of ‘internal event’ in the history of the family, is violence. A line runs backwards from Felim’s chokeholds to Phil’s roars and slaps, and Imelda’s too (as a child, Carmel remembers, she ‘did not blame Imelda for slipping into a temper’, because, after all, ‘somebody had to do it’). Violence, here, is both completely ordinary, ‘like the weather’, and something extraordinary, unaccountable, made strange by being viewed close up and in slow motion. In a showdown after their mother’s death, Imelda comes at Carmel with a sugar bowl, ‘spinning around to hit her sister with a swirl of white’; Carmel registers the sound of ‘a fizzle of sugar [hitting] the floor’. Years later, in her own kitchen, she picks up a fruit bowl and begins hurling oranges at her ten-year-old daughter’s legs, then cracks her across the temple. The violence is cinematic, inhabiting a range of modes and tones – heroic, comic, slapstick – and everything is playable for laughs, until it isn’t. What breaks Carmel, making her feel ‘unzipped’ by shame, is a dissociative sense that she has lost her own personhood and been taken over somehow by Phil. ‘Her father, her father. He was. Her father was. Right there. Her father was bigger than the world and a lot less wonderful. He was vast, like a wall.’

Following the traces leads us back to the countryside, the place of Felim’s childhood and Phil’s. The stories Felim tells Nell about his family’s farm are grim: the time their neighbours drowned in a slurry tank, in ‘four foot of shit’; a sick dog his father killed by tying it to a tractor and driving off. ‘He said the land was a hard thing to love and it never let you go.’ Phil describes watching a badger-baiting presided over by his father, the attempt to smash a young cub’s skull, then the old brock being torn apart by dogs. The episode, he says, turned him to writing. But poetry – the lyrical, romantic verse of the rural tradition, Phil’s bread and butter – is bound up with the violence of the land in profound ways. One is necessary to the other; in poems, people transfigure what would otherwise be real. Visiting Felim’s farm in Louth, Nell encounters his grandmother, who accosts her with a ‘ghastly’ recital of one of Phil’s anthology pieces. ‘I had a fantasy,’ Nell says afterwards, that ‘they set me washing dishes in the granny’s apron, that Fiachra [Felim’s brother] pushed me over the sink and raped me in my high heels while their father was out on the land … And the granny quoted poetry, throughout.’

The arc of the novel, patiently and brilliantly wrought, is Nell’s slow recognition that all this is inherent in Phil’s poetry, not projected onto it – that what it contains is a selfish, nothingy kind of feeling, which originates in badness and makes excuses for more of it. ‘The words seem lovely – but they are not lovely … This is not just fake, I think. It’s an actual trap.’ The land itself, the fields, animals and birds, aren’t to blame; the problem is what humans do to them, the way they package them, claim them, make them in their image. In the poem of the novel’s title, ‘The Wren, The Wren’, Phil pictures Carmel as a tiny, delicate bird, flying away from him rather than being abandoned. ‘I did not feel/the push/of her ascent/away from me.’ Felim can’t stop naming things: the land furthest from the farmhouse at home is ‘the far field’, he tells Nell, because ‘that’s what it is’ – from his perspective, anyway. Language, poetic language in particular, muddies what it touches. Nell, back home at Carmel’s at the end of the novel, with a nicer boyfriend in tow, looks a bullfinch straight in the eye and refuses to tell a story about it. The bird is just the bird.

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