Sep 17, 2023

Book Review: ‘The Wren, the Wren,’ by Anne Enright

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Interspersed with the three characters’ stories are Phil’s poems, written about the Irish countryside and his family (he called Carmel “the wren”):

Love is a tide,
it is mist
Becoming cloud, it is rain
On the river, water into water
Heart into heart. It is all
Downhill from here.

While reckoning with her father’s absence decades later, Carmel says: “Phil was off arguing with Dante or with Ovid because someone had to do all that.” The samples of Phil’s writing that Enright provides sound convincingly of his era and character, and her decision to include them in the narrative turns his work into another member of the family, as if to ask: Was sacrificing this for that worthwhile?

Nell, a 23-year-old freelance writer who sends explicit selfies to an abusive lover, gets a piece of the above poem tattooed on her body; she embodies Phil in other ways, too. Like him, she is a romantic: “Time is a mechanism to measure how long we are apart,” she thinks of her would-be boyfriend. “It’s not that I think about him constantly, he is my way of thinking.”

But the most powerful trait the family shares is their dry humor. Phil tells us his mother bikes to a new teaching job, “her cheeks rosy and her arms grown lean in the beating of children that were not her own.” When Nell is born, Carmel refuses to let a man hold her because “that would be like holding it out at arm’s length and dropping it right there, on to the concrete.” A depressed Nell says: “I stand in the shower till the hot water runs out. I stay till my fingertips wrinkle, while polar bears swing their sad heads from side to side, looking for all the lost snow.”

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In her sensitivity and strength, Nell might be on her way to becoming the most whole member of the three. Early in the novel she finds a release from her sorrow in watching videos of deaf children hearing their mothers’ voices for the first time, via cochlear implants — a scene she describes in a poem of her own.

Boy looks up
Tear initiation
Something happens in his face
Tear confirmation
He turns
Liquid formation
He points
Full, swelling droplet
She responds
Tear release. Copious.

This is a powerful, thoughtful book by one of the great living writers on the subject of family, about how very long it takes to make peace with cruelty and loneliness, about being a woman living in the shadow of a man who wrestles with Ovid, doing the nonpoetic work of raising children and defrosting the freezer. Speaking about love in terms both domestic and transcendent, Enright coos through newly connected wires.

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