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The Wren, The Wren by Anne Enright

14 April 2024


The Wren, The Wren by Anne Enright


Anne Enright is an Irish author and recipient of many writing prizes—and it’s no wonder. The Wren, The Wren is one of those few magical texts that transports and transfixes and befuddles. I was entirely sold on both protagonists and simultaneously astounded by the depth of experience and interiority Enright has created for each that is so vastly divergent from my own lived experience and comprehension of the universe. That is to say, Enright permitted me to live inside worldviews and manners of thought that I’ve never to date witnessed in life or in literature. For me, this novelty was simultaneously disarming and intimidating. Enright’s story, language, and characters lulled and seduced as much as they reinforced my own insecurity—my impostor syndrome: I could never, ever, come up with a world and characters so different from anything I’ve ever experienced in the real world—how did she do it?


Then I come back down to earth: Enright is Irish. Her cultural background is nothing like my own. I know that sounds silly and simple; human is human, after all. Our stories are universal. Still, as I currently forge my way through Craft in the Real World: Rethinking Fiction Writing and Workshopping by Matthew Salesses, I’m startled by this living, breathing example of a book whose craft so departs from all that I’ve learned of fiction writing from my white-bred British/American literary background (remember, I have an MA in English Literature). Enright’s book is entirely and completely character-centric—to the point that plot is a thing only loosely draped upon those character’s shoulders. Given the command, could I possibly point to the standard points on Freytag’s pyramid beyond the one obvious inciting incident of Phil abandoning his wife and children (and his misplacement of his favorite watch)? No! The whole story feels like the ebb and flow of a tide. It is not a river that moves toward the sea; it appears to have no particular direction, which is telling because such is life. Such is love. Such is the nature of generational trauma and DNA. Things skip generations. Conflicts today inform relationships today and tomorrow; they go unresolved and carry over to the next generation to appear in new ways and old ways, maybe with the volume ratcheted up here or down there.


This is a revelation to me: story may be character-centric and nearly devoid of plot. And in Enright’s case, that lends itself to a poetic lyricality that glints and glows from each page like illuminated family jewels.


What struck me—stunned me—most about the story was Enright’s admission of its inspiration in the Author’s Note at the end:

Many years ago, I met a writer who talked of his custody arrangements with his young son: “My wife got sick,” he explained, almost incidentally. “And we split up.” It seemed such a natural thing to say, it was some time before I considered the idea that he had deserted a woman with a small child because of her medical issues. Conversation about husbands going weirdly absent when their wives are ill are commonplace among my female friends. The problem is not one of male self-absorption but something more like denial, fear, or even anguish. (275)

The facts/events of her novel are inspired by a very generalized idea of an issue that women too often face. It was not semiautobiographical, as far as this reads here, but instead seems to have been wholly created, imagined, shaped. This hurts my brain: could I ever accomplish this? Enright is so far out of my league that I slide a slippery slope from admiration to defeat. But no; I won’t allow it. Anyway, this in itself is a lesson: I may write an entire book based on a single anecdote from life—Enright did!


And it is inspiring. Nell’s character and its first-person interiority gave me so much fodder for a character I am currently writing. The interiority of my past characters has always been so literal. Nell’s is not. Nell’s interiority is lyrical, poetic, and often unexamined. To date, I’ve always written characters who are me. Maybe it’s time to attempt a character whose brain operates/functions differently from mine. Carmel’s character was instructive in a different way. To me, her character reads autistic. Nell accuses her mother of being stupid, but it’s clear to me Carmel is anything but stupid; her brain just functions differently—which we know, because her sections are not written in the first person (third person limited), as Nell’s are. I’ve been wanting to write the autistic experience for a while, now.


Nell’s character also provided inspiration insofar as I have a story I need to write that has been sitting at the tip of my brain for a month, now—and it’s the story of a woman who becomes ensnared in a narcissistically abusive romantic relationship. Well. Nell’s story is something like that, too. Enright’s portrayal of Nell’s abusive relationship with her boyfriend gave me many points of AHA! This is what it feels like to be inside of that situation. This is how someone’s brain might work to keep them trapped in such a situation. It was all enlightening.


I cannot conclude this review without addressing a few more craft concepts that I encountered. First, Enright has peppered the novel with Phil’s poetry—which is obviously Enright’s poetry. It never really dawned on me that I could weave some of my own poetry into my writing. I have plenty of it. Why not? Next, Enright breaks craft standards to suit her characters. In Nell’s chapters, dialogue is not enclosed in quotation marks. Often, it is also not tagged. This makes it difficult, at times, to understand what words are spoken. I’m not sure how much I enjoy this, as it led me to some confusion (my brain is so, so literal). On the other hand, Carmel’s chapters have single quotes surrounding dialogue. I can’t but believe this was a choice Enright made—that it was intentional. I wonder why she chose it, just a little bit, but I also know it helps the reader to differentiate the types of brain functionality these two characters exhibit.


It's difficult not to be intimidated when I encounter real, good writing like Enright’s. It makes me reexamine what I want from this path in my life. Stephen King does not write like this, and yet he is far more prolific. His writing is literal, craft-centric. Do I want to be that? Or do I want to be more like Enright (which, let’s be real, I could never be)?


I’d prefer to be neither; I’d prefer to be something unique enough not to be compared to either.


Who knows what that might be?

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