Birds are a lot like life: glorious to behold but gone far too quickly. But unlike the act of bird watching, the glorious aspects of life are counterbalanced by complications—paramount among them, the challenges of relationships. That’s the dynamic Anne Enright explores in her achingly beautiful new novel.
The Wren, the Wren is set in Ireland, and its key relationships are between a mother, her daughter and the daughter’s absent grandfather. Under other circumstances, Phil McDaragh might be a grandfather worth bragging about. He’s justly celebrated for his love poems, which Enright includes throughout the novel. But Nell never knew him because he walked out on his family when his wife—Nell’s grandmother—developed breast cancer.
Enright toggles between the perspectives of Nell and her mother, Carmel. At 22, Nell is just out of college and is “poking my snout and whiskers into the fresh adult air.” She gets a job writing content for an agency and begins a relationship with Felim, whose “party trick is to pick people up by the head,” a habit less distressing than Nell’s suspicion he’s still seeing a previous girlfriend.
For Carmel, the specter of Phil’s departure lingers both in her nurturing side and in a cautiousness toward men. In one of the novel’s many marvelous character depictions, Carmel remembers Phil wearing tweed jackets with pockets “dragged out of shape by little books and cigarette packs” and how the “chewed plastic of his glasses stuck out over one ear.” He was the type of man who would break a chair in frustration when he couldn’t find his watch. When Nell was born, Carmel “did not give [her] to any man…. Because this was her baby, and hers alone.”
In lesser hands, The Wren, the Wren might have been unbearably downbeat. But Enright’s exquisite prose and sympathy toward her characters make it a rewarding experience. Late in the book, a character says, “You think you can walk away, but you really can’t walk away, because, guess what? There isn’t anywhere else to go.” That’s another distinction between humans and birds, as Enright elegantly points out: Both species have their challenges, but when times get tough, it’s easier for birds to rise above it all.