Despite or maybe because of his self-centered ways, an Irish poet attracts female fans in The Wren, The Wren by Anne Enright. After the wife falls ill, Phil McDaragh leaves home and two daughters who are left wondering what they did wrong. Pain, distance and a tolerance for abuse reverberate through three generations. The poet leaves the country, conceding his writing is nostalgic. He writes only about Ireland because “You can’t leave a place like that,” Phil said. “It’s always with you.” He travels to Italy, where it’s claimed he abused another poet, and to the United States, where he marries a student.
Phil disappoints any who admire and support him. His daughter, Carmel, and his only granddaughter, Nell – conceived by a mother with no husband as a means to defeat loneliness – narrate most of the story, with Phil’s poetry scattered in between. Midway in the novel, Phil describes a childhood that includes animal cruelty, an abusive brother, rejection of a neighbor girl whom he once adored and a mentor’s disappointment with his decision to become a poet rather than join the priesthood. “I thought, at twelve years old, that I would never forget the look on the old priest’s face, that I would set my course by it. Now, I now the indelible thing was the glance I exchanged with the badger pup, as he waited for the fatal blow to fall. Nothing in my life, before or since, has matched that connection. It was a peak of understanding from which my whole existence, with its loves and false joys and tedious losses, has slowly fallen away.” Only Phil’s feelings matter, nothing else. Beautiful words cannot compensate for brutal ways.
Despite irregular correspondence with his family, the daughter and his only granddaughter ponder the man's legacy and words, often troubled by sweet words and descriptions of nature masking the lies and suffering of a restrictive community. “Phil's hands shaped the air in front of his rotting chest as he talked of the little Irish wren, and there as just a whisper of alcohol there, softening his tongue and wetting those mischievous, fond eyes. It was so easy to hate this man - the facts spoke for themselves - but it was still hard to dislike him. And it was devastatingly easy to love him. To flock around and keen when he died, because all the words died with him.”
The internet exposes bad behaviors that are far less tolerated decades later. Carmel searches online for an interview with her father broadcast in the early 1980s and discovers the hypocrisies of another era. The interviewer fawns, suggesting that Phil has a great understanding of women and Phil agrees. Laughing, Carmel decides that her father is "slightly creepy” and perhaps she was better off with him removed for so long from her life. Such observations contribute to breaking the family's cycle of adoration and self-abuse.
Letting go of the past, Carmel welcomes her free-spirited daughter while acknowledging that “She had not been a good mother…. All the love in the world would not make her a good mother. It was always such a wrangle. She could not hold her daughter, and she could not let her go.” The two women move on from past quarrels and contradictions, misunderstandings and painful memories to regard each other’s emotions and work a bit harder at getting along.