In an article for the London Review of Books last year, Anne Enright applied the term ‘various and shifting’ to James Joyce’s Ulysses. ‘Various and shifting’ might also suggest a thing or two about her own literary method, and nowhere is it displayed more compellingly than in her latest novel, with its variety of scenes and settings and shifting perspectives.
The Wren, the Wren has an episodic structure. Two women, Nell McDaragh and her mother, Carmel, are the central duo around whom the elements of a complex storyline coalesce, with the parts focusing on Nell being written in the first person and those on Carmel in the third. Straightaway, we are plunged into Nell’s consciousness as she ponders questions of identity, empathy, separateness and how the minds of individuals work. At this point she is a year out of Trinity College Dublin, living in a house share in Ballybough, concerned about the decline of Irish bird populations, particularly nightjars, and earning a living of sorts by writing travel pieces featuring freshwater lagoons and hammocks strung between palm trees.
A boy called Felim comes into the picture, carrying his own emotional baggage, which includes a background abundant in tea, soda bread and rashers, and kneeling on the floor to say the rosary (baggage is an important theme in the book – the things we are lumbered with, for good or ill). With Felim ‘the sex is not great’ and his role in the novel is not great either, though his name recurs until the end, a reminder – like many of the names in the novel – of a persistent strain of indigenous piety. Enright is still at the business of obliquely charting the course of change in Irish life, from priestly repression to social media and sexual liberation. She’s a wonderfully astute and idiosyncratic commentator, with an eye for an oddity, but it’s hard to think of her novels as being plot-driven. Rather, she seems concerned with delineating sets of circumstances as her characters progress from one existential mode to another. I’m reminded of May Sinclair’s approving comment on Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage: ‘it is just life going on and on’.
In The Wren, the Wren, it also goes back and back. We have Nell, and before that Carmel and her crucial decision to become a husbandless mother of one. Carmel herself was preceded by her father, Phil McDaragh, a famous poet and philanderer who presides in some sense over the