In Enright’s latest, The Wren, The Wren, the tone is especially light as the novel opens: the first narrator, Nell McDarragh, is a recent graduate of Trinity College, full of the sarcastic, cynical wisdom of youth. Enright is always interested in narrative voice, in who’s telling the story and thereby distorting it. Nell is sensitive, smart, sometimes stoned, and—despite her proclaimed interest in empathy—self-conscious, if not self-centered. She’s also likeable, charged with the confusion of energy, lethargy, freedom, and guilt that entangles so many young lives. The granddaughter of a beloved poet, Phil McDarragh, she feels the burden of that relationship when her lover Felim trots her out to a family baptism. It eventually becomes clear that he’s put Nell on display because his granny reveres her famous relative.
The famous relative, however, deserted his two daughters for America when his wife was stricken with breast cancer, so Nell only knows him from his poetry and from old interviews. In a good-natured author’s note, Enright explains that the idea for this novel came from another real-life writer whose marriage disintegrated when his wife “got sick.” Stories of abandonment in the face of suffering might be familiar, Enright says, but “the problem is not one of male self-absorption but something more like denial, fear, or even anguish.” That’s a generous take, typical of Enright’s attitude toward her most difficult characters. But as much as Phil McDarragh may be anguished, he certainly comes across as self-absorbed, at least as seen through the novel’s second narrative lens: Nell’s mother, Carmel.
Unlike her daughter’s chapters, Carmel’s are not written in the first person but in the third, a more formal narration that reflects her generation’s custom of self-effacement. The chapters told from her perspective are weighted with her certainty that lovers, family, and friends are bound to let her down and that she’s better off on her own, but her self-deprecating wit leavens even her saddest observations. Teaching in Italy, she demurs when a friend invites her to come swimming in the local pool because she “was Irish and would rather die than conduct a conversation while wet.” Carmel believes that sex is “almost the opposite of a relationship” and when she gives birth to her own child, she does so without benefit (or handicap, as she might see it) of a husband. Nell grows up happily fatherless, and if there’s plenty of tension and evasion in the current mother-daughter relationship, their devotion to each other is clear. Carmel remembers believing, when Nell was only an infant, that she knew all about her mother’s sorrows: “The baby carried the whole black universe with her, in the pupil of her eye.”
Enright, in turn, often presses the whole weight of strained human relationships into the length of a striking sentence. Just as the impact of Phil’s desertion is evident in Carmel’s loneliness, the effect of Carmel’s attitudes is evident in her daughter’s feelings. Carmel describes one youthful sexual encounter as “huge and empty and, at the bright, distant edge of it, a feeling of agony, almost”—“agony” a word right at home in late twentieth-century Catholic Ireland, whether it refers to Christ’s agony or Ulster’s agony of sectarian violence. Nell, though she belongs to a far more permissive and irreligious generation, welcomes a different kind of agony as she subjects herself to Felim’s cruelty. When she finally flees Dublin to escape her obsession, she spies shirtless teenage boys in the English sunshine and, in a droll echo of her mother’s tone, says, “I could not remember why I ever wanted to sleep with a man, it did not seem medically possible.” A promiscuous friend offers a stoned observation: “Love requires (he pauses, looking for the right term) two acts of submission, and sex (he pauses again) really doesn’t.” In a new age of bondage clubs, “submission” is another loaded word.
Yet despite their professions of agony, both Carmel and Nell are determined to experiment, a clear reflection of the vast changes in sexual practices and gender expectations transforming religious countries like Ireland in especially jarring fashion. Carmel’s father has long since flouted the sexual rules and, from the time Phil McDarragh was a child, had no use for the Church’s “attempted pomp…a cheap postcard from the eternal.” His religion is nature, the mysteries and wonders of the Irish countryside he celebrates in the original poems and translations that Enright uses as bridges between chapters. What better way than poetry to highlight the novel’s commitment to wordplay, compression, and connection? His poem “The Wren, The Wren” is written for Carmel; it invokes “her eye, honour bright / to my vast eye,” a lovely link to Carmel’s certainty that her daughter’s eye contains the universe.