Anne Enright at the Cheltenham Literary Festival in the United Kingdom, October 2015 (WENN Rights Ltd/Alamy Stock Photo)

Some contemporary Irish novelists are easier to describe than others: Kevin Barry’s a madcap experimentalist, Claire Keegan a subtle and lyrical stylist, Sally Rooney an ironic post-postmodernist. Anne Enright is harder to pin down. Her prose is sure and knowing, yet so seemingly offhand that the opening pages of her novels can feel frothy, lightweight. Those deft early chapters, however, invariably lead to complications and disturbances, to complex structures and capacious insights. What looks at first like romantic comedy or domestic kerfuffle can quickly become searing cultural critique.

Enright won the Booker Prize in 2007 for The Gathering, but her subsequent novels have only increased my regard for what she’s up to with the smooth surfaces and roiling depths of her fiction: Actress (2020), for example, begins with her characteristic light touch as she explores the charmed life of a lovely young performer reared in a company of touring players. Soon enough, Enright is delving into commercialized art, the IRA’s political violence, and sexual coercion. The Forgotten Waltz (2011) opens just before the start of an adulterous affair, complete with cheesy pop love songs for chapter titles, but manages, over the depressing course of the lovers’ journey toward cohabitation, to skewer the giddy consumerism and real-estate spikes of the Celtic Tiger years. My favorite Enright, The Green Road (2015), is an ambitious work that follows the lives of a tempestuous mother and her four children as they move fully into adulthood. Spanning continents, sexual orientations, and political philosophies, the novel gallops right past any notions we might have about the scope of the domestic novel.

Spanning continents, sexual orientations, and political philosophies, the novel gallops right past any notions we might have about the scope of the domestic novel.

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.

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.

But the poet who celebrates his younger daughter in verse has abandoned her and only connects with Carmel through occasional letters when a sentimental mood overcomes him. Enright faces an interesting authorial challenge in his poems: they must be good enough to make McDarragh important to an older generation and dated enough to make Nell’s friends dismiss them. I’d say she pulls it off. Timeless the original poems are not, but they do evince the best of McDarragh (his reverence for the natural world and language) as well as the worst (that sentimentality). The real surprise is not the poetry but the long-dead Phil’s prose intrusion into the middle of the book—we readers aren’t expecting his visit. His chapter is brief (and reminiscent of dead Addie’s arrival in Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying) but it’s also a tour de force, a haunting depiction of brutality, especially disturbing because the language is so glorious. A fierce badger defends his pup and fights off a killing dog as betting men look on; a young Phil meets the cub’s eye as a stranger brings down a shovel on its head (“I looked into the animal’s eyes and he into mine and we understood each other completely”). Later, the schoolboy poet betrays the girl he loves after her father cuts off her hair as ritual punishment for walking out with him (“Such was the fierceness of my feelings, that I jeered her too”). As childhood tales of fairy folk give way to a reading list devised by a priest determined to make another clergyman of young Phil, farm gives way to village and religious belief gives way to poetry. By the short chapter’s end, we see the faithless man McDarragh will become amid hints of the new country Ireland is becoming.

It seems entirely apt that both Carmel and Nell will leave Ireland as Phil did; the difference is that they return. When Nell comes back to her mother’s house after faraway travels, the novel, without tying things up too neatly, suggests a new path for her—but since Nell and Carmel are both prickly, it’s a good bet that any future journeys won’t be sentimental. They will be anchored, instead, by faithfulness between mother and daughter. They may not be poets, but they do know how to submit to a fierce and steady love.

The Wren, The Wren
Anne Enright
W. W. Norton
$27.95 | 288 pp.

Valerie Sayers, professor emerita at Notre Dame, is the author of six novels and a collection of stories, The Age of Infidelity.

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