The Wren, The Wren by Anne Enright: Mothers and daughters

Cover image for The Wren, The Wren by Anne EnrightA new Anne Enright is always worth looking out for although it has to be said I still have a copy of Actress, her last novel, sitting unread on my shelves. Of course, that didn’t stop me putting up my hand for The Wren, The Wren when I spotted it. Enright’s new novel follows a mother and her daughter whose lives have been overshadowed by their poet ancestor.

I look at the photograph many, many times. I think I am his leavings. I am the thing he cannot finish or throw away.

Nell is the daughter of Carmel, the product of a short fling with one of her language students. Recently graduated, she’s chosen to live in a squalid houseshare rather than stay with her fiercely independent mother with whom she has a scratchy relationship. Nell gets by writing website content, sometimes not managing to leave her cramped room for days at a time. She misses her university friends while making no new ones, becomes involved in a coercive relationship in which sex is either perfunctory or edged with violence and most weekends visits Carmel who tries not to exert her own control. When their self-mythologising poet father had left the family, his wife ill with cancer, Carmel’s sister had taken over the household, perpetuating the violence that Phil had occasionally doled out. Now long dead and even longer out of fashion, Phil had burnished his reputation as a love poet, taking himself off to the US where he divorced and married again. Nell had never met her grandfather, and Carmel had not seen him since she was a child, but Phil has thrown a long shadow.

It also went without saying that, when Carmel had her own baby, many years later, she did not give it to any man. That would be like holding it out at arm’s length and dropping it right there, on to the concrete.  

Enright tells these two women’s stories through alternating narratives together with a single section from Phil. Scattered throughout are overly romantic poems, samples of Phil’s somewhat cheesy style, in which he extols the virtues of the love which he’d failed to practice in life. Both women are astutely drawn, although for me Carmel was the more successful character. The tensions between them work well: Carmel’s surprised consuming love for her daughter and Nell’s need to escape it but inability to resist its draw. Nell’s relationship with Felim is uncomfortably believable, the thread of coercion running from Phil through to his granddaughter smartly done. Themes of love, family and its legacy are familiar from Enright’s previous novels; it’s emotional territory she handles expertly, and her writing is reliably excellent but, although I found her new novel absorbing and enjoyable, somehow it doesn’t quite match The Gathering or The Green Road for me.

Vintage Publishing: London ‎ 9781787334601 208 pages Hardback (read via NetGalley)

25 thoughts on “The Wren, The Wren by Anne Enright: Mothers and daughters”

  1. Not sure this one is for me, all that complex human anxiety sounded exhausting. The book title did remind me of another, The Willow Wren by Philipp Schott that I read a couple of years ago, totally different from the above book, as it was set around WW2, but worth a read for anyone who likes war stories.

  2. Despite your (relatively small) misgivings, I’m delighted to discover it’s been ordered by our library service and is about to appear in several branches – including mine.

  3. I like Enright, but I can’t say I’ve ever fully loved one of her novels. This one is getting great reviews and I’m glad to hear it mostly worked for you but I don’t feel in a great rush to read it.

  4. I’m not sure this would appeal to me generally, but like you I really liked The Green Road and The Gathering so I will definitely read it. Good to hear you enjoyed this even if it didn’t quite reach those heights!

  5. I’ve just reviewed this myself… and Margaret left a comment telling me you’d reviewed it, so here I am. I think we are aligned on our views on this one. I didn’t love it. I found it dull, to be honest, which is what I thought of her last one (Actress) too which explores similar themes (what it’s like to live in the shadow of a famous parent, and strained mother-daughter relationships). The last one of hers I truly loved was The Last Waltz, which was about a decade ago!

  6. I reviewed this for Shelf Awareness and had the honour of interviewing Enright about it. I’d agree with you that she’s done everything right (family dysfunction, young person’s perspective, generational legacies/curses) … and yet I finished feeling underwhelmed.

  7. I very much enjoyed Actress, the fourth Enright novel I has read. This does sound good but complex and intense. Definitely one I might be interested in in the future. Though not for my current mood.

  8. I liked Actress a lot, but the mother-daughter relationship in this new one sounds very complex and claustrophobic. Not sure it’s for me right now, but I really appreciate your balanced review. (FWIW, I wasn’t keen on The Forgotten Waltz. In fact it put me off reading Enright again for several years until Actress proved hard to resist. I’m very much out on a limb though as many other readers, such as Kim, think very highly of Waltz!)

    1. There seems to be a general feeling amongst the bloggers’ reviews I’ve come across that this one was somewhat lacking, although critics think otherwise. I suspect I’ll read both Actress and The Forgotten Waltz but may well give her next one a miss.

  9. Not for the first time to find differences in the views of critics and book bloggers. I did enjoy Actress though it didn’t have the emotional heft of The Gathering. So now I’m wondering whether The Wren will prove to be a disappointment

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