The Irish novelist Anne Enright is now in her sixties. Her deceptively modest new novel, The Wren, The Wren, opens with a long section narrated by Nell, a woman in her early twenties living in contemporary Dublin. Nell scrapes by, ‘writing content non-stop’: travel pieces about places she’s never been to, stories for a wealthy ‘actress/eco-influencer’. Adrift and vulnerable, she falls into an on-off relationship with a man called Felim, who is emotionally cruel and photographs her naked without her permission.
With this extended portrait of a much younger woman, Enright quietly establishes her excellence. Laid against similar endeavours by writers of her generation – Lorrie Moore’s A Gate at the Stairs (2009), Deborah Levy’s August Blue (2023) – Enright demonstrates a rare fluency in the language of youth. This doesn’t mean that Nell’s narration sounds like it was written by a 23-year-old. We get to have it both ways: Enright articulates certain insights better than a younger writer might be able to, yet Nell still convinces as a millennial (or possibly even Gen Z-er).
Her voice alternates with third-person sections filtered through the perspective of her mother Carmel. From Carmel, we learn about Nell’s famous grandfather, Phil McDaragh, a womanising poet who left Carmel’s mother, struggling with breast cancer, when Carmel and her sister were still in their teens. Carmel has led a tightly independent life, raising Nell alone (the pregnancy was the result of a fling). As a teenager, Nell looks round the spotless bathroom and wonders: ‘Was there a woman on the planet more boring than my mother?’ But the reader, with privileged access to each woman’s view of the other, has a different understanding of what the quiet, stable home with its carefully curated interiors represents for Carmel.
This duet between the generations and Enright’s facility in these two contrasting idioms lend the novel its unique texture.