Descendants of a famous poet wrestle with his vexed legacy in 'The Wren, The Wren'
Has there ever been a novel or short story about a male writer who was a decent husband and father?
I'm thinking. I've been thinking ever since I finished Anne Enright's new novel, The Wren, The Wren. It's a story about a fictional famed Irish poet named Phil McDaragh who deserts his sick wife and two young daughters — a betrayal that reverberates into his granddaughter's life.
Not all literary men have been cads in real life, but misbehavior makes for a more dramatic tale. That's certainly the case with The Wren, The Wren, which, despite its precious title, is a tough, mordant story about the mess one particular Great Man of Letters leaves behind when he walks out the door.
After his death, McDaragh is lauded as "the finest love poet of his generation," which is, of course, a pre-#MeToo generation where poet-predators grazed with impunity through writing conferences and classrooms. When Phil's first wife, Terry, is diagnosed with breast cancer, he quickly moves on to a beautiful American student, destined to become wife #2.
Many years later, Phil's younger daughter, Carmel, goes online and discovers a television interview with him filmed in the early 1980s, a couple of years before his death. In it, Phil reflects on his marriage to Terry, saying: "She got sick ... Unfortunately, and the marriage did not survive." Jaded Carmel sees through the theatricality of Phil's wet-eyed TV performance, but we're also told that Carmel thinks to herself that when her father died, "a room in her head filled with earth."
Each chapter of The Wren, The Wren is told from the point of view a different member of the McDaragh family. Every character commands attention, but it's Nell — Carmel's daughter and Terry and Phil's granddaughter — who steps out in front of this ensemble. Nell is in her 20s and her outlook is full of verve and possibility. She loves her grandfather's gorgeous poetry, excerpts of which --conjured up by Enright herself — are scattered throughout this novel. In a faint fashion, Nell is also pursuing a writing career: She's living in Dublin and generating online content for a travel site.
As Nell tells us, "[a] year out of college, I was poking my snout and whiskers into the fresh adult air ...." At a nightclub, she meets a guy from the countryside named Felim. He literally picks her up by standing behind her, pushing his thumbs into the base of her skull, and cupping his hands under her chin. This technique should have trigged red alerts, but instead it takes a while for the otherwise savvy Nell to catch on that Felim is an abuser. Nell says:
"I realised that every stupid, small thing I said that first night we got together had landed somewhere wrong in him, and it rose up now as a taunt. He wasn't listening to me, he was storing it all up."
The power of Enright's novel derives not so much from the age-old tale of men behaving badly, but from the beauty and depth of her own style. She's so deft at rendering arresting insights into personality types or situations. Here's a flashback to Carmel as a child, sitting at her father's funeral, listening to a fellow poet eulogize him. She's wearing borrowed black tights which "made her body feel tight and full of blood, like a tick." The other poet is pompously describing one of Phil's poetry collections as "an ode to the wandering human soul" and we're told that:
"He made it sound as though Phil had not left his family, so much as gone traveling for his work. Phil was off arguing with Dante or with Ovid because someone had to do all that. If her father stopped writing poetry, then something awful would happen. The veil of reality would be ripped away."
Enright packs into that passage both a child's adoration of an elusive parent and intimations of the disillusionment to come. The Wren, The Wren is what is still sometimes called, "a small story" — small because it focuses on the emotional life of women. Through the force of her writing, however, Enright makes it clear that such stories are never small when they happen to you.
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