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What do writers do? Is a fair question, often it is phrased as “What do writers actually do?” As there is this idea, completely understandable, that writers cannot possibly be writing all the time. Stephen King in his book “On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft” tells aspiring writers to read, and he mocks the wanna-be writer who says he does not have time to read, because as Stephen King sees it, if you don’t have time to read you certainly don’t have time to write.
Writer’s read. Writer’s read before they become writers, writer’s read because they love to but also because they have to, a kind of compulsion -some argue we also write because we have to, because we must. Ever so often there comes a book which reminds you of why you wanted to write in the first place. Peter Coetzee once said he started writing because as a child, he wanted to do what other writers were doing to him, he wanted to do that.
Anne Enright, in her new novel the wren, the wren whose tile echoes Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, the sea reminded me of why I wanted to write in the first place, except she’s so good her novel is a kind of virtuoso preformance, like watching Glen Gould while you’d just be happy to play anything, he just reminds you why you love music so much, why you are giving your life to literature, this most elusive art in which everything is possible.
“At the height of their powers…” used to be a well-worn book cover phrase connotating authors with a good amount of ink previously spilled, known authors with successes behind their backs, Enright is a Booker winner and already holds a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Irish Book Awards. She has written many excellent novels. I remember being smitten by The Green Road, the way she drew in such a broad cannvass generation upon generation, and she was not talking only about the way we live now, but the way we lived then. She was explaining a family, but also a piece of land, a country and in a way ourselves.
the wren, the wren is a novel that could only have been written recently, a novel where the internet, tatooed youths, influencers and voluntarily single mothers are part of the landscape. Again, Enright writes about three generations and paints not only singularly believable characters but the whole society in which they live, their whole world. For the grandfather a world with normalized violence imparted within families but also towards animals, normalized machism, the patriarchy mid-century. For the mother, the possibility of being free to make a living, to earn an income, support a daughter, have a home and lovers. And for Nell she writes for the internet, she writes for us, she lets us into her thoughts and her friends and the man she sometimes sleeps with and texts, we see her become, find herself and take pictures with her phone.
Through these characters Enright leads us into the world that forged them and the wounds they carry and pass on. She uses words to convey emotions and scenery in such subtle, clever ways, that you cannot help but bowing in awe. I didn’t know you could do that, kind of marvel. Ernright is so artful that she talks about a priest who teaches a boy, who listens to him, gives him books, a priest who has power over the family -a word of his changed the sleeping arrangement of the siblings- “such was the power of the Catholic church” she says, and that’s it. We leave the priest there, where he belongs, in the granfather’s youth. She does not go on to tell us about the Church and its abuse, about its power or what it did or didn’t do in Ireland, no, just this priest as he affected Phillip. Daddo. She doesn’t talk about Ireland’s poverty, except for the fact that one of Phillip’s brothers, the eldest, left for the United States and suddenly the family is decimated.
Enright’s writing is a joy, it is smart, funny, original… it delivers. She also uses her characters and their lives to thread bigger themes, love and our incapacity and capacity for it, love and its limits, the inevitablility of hurting those we love and the wounds the real wounds we carry. There is a scene of domestic violence where the child heals immediately, bares no marks “what does it take to send a child to the hospital?” Carmel asks. Carmel the character, the perpretrator, asks this question but also Enright is asking this question, what does it take, how much more violent one has to be and why does this happen time and again? When a friend of Nell’s starts going to bondage clubs, she worries. “I worry he might get hurt by being hurt. I worry, -I cannot help it- that it will make him less of a person, in the long run.
It’s not like that.
Just. You go in the door. And it is what it is. And then you leave.”
Enright doesn’t blink, she doesn’t flinch, she boldly leads us into the intimate spaces, into the sex, into the imbalances and thankfuly also into the escape, the alternatives, the better choices and the love, imperfect but there.
And then there are the birds, fairywrens, ibises “their curving black commas for beaks”, kingfishers and wrens flutter through her writing, where Nell runs into a wall of heat. She’s in Florence and sudddenly you remember being in that wall of heat a summer years ago in Florence. When Phil dies, her daughter thought “a room in her head filled with earth” because “It was so easy to hate this man -the facts spoke for themselves- but it was still hard to dislike him.”
the wren, the wren is easy to love -the sentences shine for themselves- and it is still hard to get the characters out of your mind, you nither like or dislike them, you feel you knew them, and that is what the best writers do.
Lorea Canales is the author of Becoming Marta,( 2011) and The Dogs, (2013) . Her Twitter is @loreac
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Posted: November 28, 2023 at 12:29 am