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  • Immagine del redattorePeter Byrne

Anne Enright Mankiller

Of the three Irish women gender warriors visited here (How Big is Small. Claire Keegan; Sally and Molly; Three Novels by Sally Rooney) Anne Enright  is the most bloodthirsty. Claire Keegan can do without the other sex. Sally Rooney is ready to go along with it if men smarten up and rise to her level.  Enright lays the male flat on a mortuary  slab and goes to work. It’s her way. Her eye is on the entrails. It stands out in her Booker prizewinner of 2007, The Gathering, a useful  introduction to her 2023, The Wren, the Wren, where her scalpel, still sharp, digs with more circumspection.

The Gathering is an important and unsatisfactory novel. It’s important because its feminism goes deeper than Keegan’s or Rooney’s. It’s more than a matter of lifestyle or manners, of civility in bed. Enright’s thirty-nine year old middle-class Dublin  narrator  has decided that the whole set-up of men and women is unworkable, an inevitable  botch.  She survives by clinging to motherhood and the need to protect her two daughters. Being snarky helps. But she keeps her bitter musing, sewn up in her interior monologue. This can’t satisfy her readers. They don’t mind her patronising all and sundry, herself included, but expect her to make it count in action as a novelist should.

photo by Christian Bowen on Unsplash

The Gathering snipes under its breath. The narrator binds us into a factual account of a lower-middle-class family whose mother has given birth to twelve, amidst seven miscarriages. At the same time she admits  to departing from the facts as she uses them to weave various fantasies. Now, we know than every novel is make-believe, something imagined. But its  validity depends on convincing us that it has its roots in reality. The flights of fancy of Enright’s spokeswoman are never clearly set apart from the situation we are supposed to take for the hard truth of a family’s history. The result is some incisive writing in a cloud of speculation.

The Gathering, nonetheless, does tell us about the author of The Wren (one will be enough here). She not only sees the world with a mother’s eye, but sees it traumatised by a dip in an Irish bog of maternity. (Her non-fiction includes Making Babies: Stumbling into Motherhood, 2004.) Part of this is a graphic interest in menstruation and a fixation on male genitalia that will intensify in The Wren. It would be wrong to quip that Enright illustrates Sigmund Freud on female penis envy. Rather, she sees the variety of male organs like different breeds of grotesque canines.  Lapdogs? Or maybe Enright is circling the body part implicated in the shame of pedophilia in “the empire of the Irish priesthood.” (Sebastian Barry) However, she doesn’t succeed in pulling her novel together by invoking an instance of child abuse as a deus ex machina.

In any case, this is down-to-the-bone talk absent from her colleagues Keegan and Rooney. Overall, Enright, the author, is trapped in one unending family novel. It’s a jumbo burden. The pushing-forty narrator of The Gathering says, “…I find that being part of a family is the most excruciating possible way to be alive,” and, forlornly, “God, I hate my family, these people I never chose to love, but love all the same.”  Enright sends us  forward to The Wren with a bitter vision of love-hate as a feature of heterosexual couples and a hazy capital-L something called Love, exalted, but more remarkable by its absence.

It was the promise of satire that drew this reader to The Wren. The title refers to a poem—the novel is full of them—supposedly written by a grandfatherly Irish poet that insider book-chat had hinted was a take on the renowned  Seamus Heaney, Nobel laureate of 1995. That was irresistible. But a reading proved that the poet named Phil McDaragh was only a ghost-like presence. He was guilty of letting celebrity take him away from his young family. But, as evil goes in our world, that’s small beer. Phil was a family inconvenience, not a global menace. There are fewer laughs in Phil’s waywardness than in Enright’s poking fun at his playing up to an international audience. It wanted an Irish poet with bog-soiled boots and cow manure in his hair. Phil from Tullamore obliged, stopping just short of bringing on the leprechauns.

The Wren can’t be over-bothered with sending up all-male Phil. He is “a keen carnivore” with “a drinker’s stomach, [and] a smoker’s cough.” Its real business is to plead for women in a world not made for them. Phil’s granddaughter, Nell, takes on the role of The Gathering’s mixed-up monologuist. She is Irish in the most up-to-date version, electronically wired up to her ears and jet hopping over the globe. She is lovingly at odds with her mother Carmel, Phil’s daughter, who was an unhappy mediator between the old church-ridden, women-in-the-scullery Ireland and Nell’s third millennial hotspot Dublin. Carmel, the fragile Wren of Phil’s poem, is hard on her Daddo, who broke up his filial flirt with her in favor of grown-up lovers. Carmel blames men on bloc and devotes herself to protecting the reckless Nell from them and caring fussily for her garden.

photo by Andrew Ridley on Unsplash

There are more major female actors. One is Carmel’s mother, Terry. In a late-in-life American TV interview, Phil interrupted his  Irish act to say of his first wife: “She was from Dublin,” not adding that she had money and he had none. Phil went on, “They lived together for some time…but she got sick unfortunately, and the marriage did not survive.”

Carmel choked on that. Not only Terry’s cancer but Carmel’s own role as the adored Wren was skipped over. The neglected wife, Terry, saw it differently. She slipped into denial over Phil’s departure and— to the ire of Carmel (and author Enright)—proved one of those too soft and forgiving women complicit in their exploitation. Of Phil, she said, “There was no badness in him….He was a big child.”

Phil seems to have thought that somebody had to subsidise poetry and his American wife had heaps of money. However, the novelist wins the gender battle for Carmel in the last pages. After Phil’s death the widowed American heiress sees the feminist light and combines with Carmel in good works against male deviltry. They promote the work of a woman poet whom Phil, one night on the Greek island of Mykonos, “turned out into the street in her nightie.” It seems that: “Her work is a exploration of damage, his an escape from it.”

Are we  up against the perennial problem here of the wrongs of the man and the purity of his art?

Not exactly. Phil was no Ezra Pound. (Uncle Ezra Homewrecker) Although his parenting  was faulty and his libido often off the leash, he wouldn’t have granted Adolf Hitler sainthood. That he played the stage Irishman on the American lecture circuit was surely only a venial sin. How not to forgive a poet who enraged at a highbrow critic of his work, “…lobbed cowshit at Austin Clarke’s [the culprit’s] window and bragged about it afterwards in every pub.”

Anne Enright’s cut and thrust in the gender collision shouldn’t let  us overlook her unisex literary skill. The Gathering, though it pleased the Booker judges in 2007, was a confusion of good things. The reader waited in  vain for the mixed-up narrator to get her ideas together. The Wren, the Wren is another kettle of fish, done to a TV chef’s perfection. Perhaps the most remarkable of its features is the raft of poems attributed to Phil McDaragh but composed by Enright. These fill out Phil’s character better than any prose description. There is even a thirteen-page account of his early life, a gem, composed in his name by Enright. Both Nell and Carmel are given their stretches of monologue to illustrate a sharp difference of generations from Phil’s. The whole is elegant and inventive, indeed masterful, mistresstful not yet being in the dictionary.

Here is Enright doing Phil in a poem:


I am of Tullamore, the son

Of a gombeen man, so I know,

The use of a good solicitor,

The value of nothing said,

The price love lost

Or gained. To which we add

The cost of modern marriage,

The daily tally for the bag man

And the priest; ten Hail Marys

Twenty-two Glory Bees.

I know the gavel knock

On altar stone, wind at the door,

Ash in the grate,

A foreign body in the bed,

The bank of her belly,

The locked safe of her heart.

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