Anne Enright’s complex song of sorrow for lost love

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The Wren, The Wren
Anne Enright
Jonathan Cape, $32.99

A mist, a perfume of ancient Celtic poetry echoes through the fabric of this novel about contemporary Irish lives. “People are different and they think differently,” says the first-person narrator, and she, Nell, signals the need for “translation”. Ending the first section of the novel is Nell’s poet-grandfather’s translation of an 18th-century anonymous love poem: “Lay your dark head upon my breast/ your honey mouth with scent of thyme.”

It is one of many poems punctuating Anne Enright’s narrative, which explores the love lives of the various characters. I have never read so many detailed sex scenes in a novel.

Anne Enright’s latest novel has many poems dotted through it.Credit: Marco Del Grande

Modern life is coolly, brutally satirised at every turn. Nell works in Dublin as a content provider for Meg, an online influencer whose life is dominated by her collection of dogs, all Maltipoos. Nell writes the fake travel pieces for the blog: “Water the colour of peppermint mouthwash, icing sugar sand, hammocks strung between palm trees, a peaceful inner freshwater lagoon that is home to many species of exotic birds.”

Birds dominate the imagery of the novel itself, which concludes with the thought that when everything else has disappeared into landfill, a bird “will perch on top of the lot of it and sing”.


The wren of the title is a mystical bird in Irish mythology. A traditional song, The Wren, The Wren, details the ancient custom of killing a wren on the day after Christmas and taking it from door to door asking for pennies. Nell’s grandfather, Phil McDaragh, borrowed the title for one of his love poems, the second of the 12 poems, some of them translations, in the book.

The startling beauty of the novel, the latest work by Enright, who won the Booker Prize with The Gathering, lies in the breezy way it moves in and out of its different textures – now sixth-century poetry, now the fractured one-word thoughts of a modern woman, now a form of Joycean stream of consciousness, now a blunt detail of sexual encounter with a stranger, now a tender moment of love, now a vivid description of a rural scene, now a series of incompetent text messages. At all times, the reader feels informed, enclosed in the narrative, eager for the next development.

Nell searches far and wide for love, across betrayals of many kinds, in her own life and also in the life of her mother and grandfather, who abandoned his own young family, went to America, married again. His rewriting of the wren poem can read as his excuse for leaving.

Nell watches an old video of an interview with Phil, and this is presented to the reader in a tone of irony and satire. Phil appears to the reader as something of a phoney, yet Nell says: “The connection between us is more than a strand of DNA, it is a rope thrown from the past, a fat twisted rope, full of blood.” His reality, his poetry and his treachery continue to inform the lives of Nell and her mother, with Nell in particular seeking for the key that will unlock the cruelty of the world and translate it into the beauty of birdsong.

Strangely, ironically, when Nell, the fake travel writer, visits the Uffizi in real life and writes it up on her blog called “Nell’s Bells, a blog for the anxious traveller”, she comes close to the beauty she yearns for. She cries “watery tears of salty joy” at the sight of a Rembrandt self-portrait. She marvels at a painting in which a woman is breastfeeding an old man who is her father. She says the picture is “fully weird and very niche”, and the reader can feel its echo a few pages later in the “fat twisted rope” that links Nell to her grandfather.

For the whole narrative is a complex song of sorrow for the grandfather who abandoned the mother and hence the granddaughter, leaving them to search far and wide for the translation that will deliver love. The novel itself works as that translation. In that old video of Phil, Nell’s mother sees “her daughter’s face breaking through her father’s face. Nell was coming through her dead grandfather, in flickers.”

Carmel Bird’s most recent book, Love Letter to Lola, is published by Spineless Wonders at $24.99.

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