This is my first book by Enright and I have looked forward to it having seen some of the reviews.
The story is based on three characters, Phil McDaragh a poet full of himself and his work, violent and abusive but said by others to be ‘the finest love poet of his generation’. Carmel, his youngest daughter is middle-aged in the book, single and a mother, struggling to let go of her daughter who is her sole focus in life. Nell, her daughter, is also struggling to find her own life having had the full attention of her mother and the poetry of her Grandfather to meet her every need. The story shows us how trauma survives the generations until one person is able to put a stop to it. Here, that is Nell.
Phil McDaragh walked out on his wife and two daughters when she was recovering from breast cancer. It wasn’t so much a walking out as a going out, no one talking about it and just never reappearing. When he did this, he left his youngest a poem, The Wren, The Wren, voicing how she was his but pushed him away, ‘I did not feel/the push/of her ascent/away from me’ when in fact the truth was he left her. The trauma he left for Carmel is that she never had a long-term partner or love. He is yet another example of an art monster, trying to rewrite the narrative of his life through his poetry.
This trauma was then transferred to Nell who just needed to get away from her mother and so took a room in a house not far away and found herself in love with Felim, a muscular farm boy. They met when he picked her up in a club by her neck and head, at her request and she was smitten from that moment. It was a transference of love from Carmel to this man and he abused her, was coercive and unkind. Nell considered the language needed between partners in love and that there is usually a small gap that requires translation. What she overlooked was that really she needed some translation of Felim’s behaviours in her life. She had flashes of these, written in italics in her chapters.
In fact, there are many translations in this book because there are also the translations of poetry.
The story is told through the three voices of Phil, Carmel and Nell, each with their own chapters interspersed with the poetry, letters and texts. This fragmentation helps with our understanding of each character and draws attention to the public and private person Phil McDaragh is. Carmel’s story is told looking back with a slightly distanced 3rd person voice as if she has to distance herself from her father for preservation. In keeping with the bird theme, she is what we would call now an empty nester. Nell is told through first person and reflects her thoughts and being more in the present and future – what will it be like? The distance between herself and her Grandfather is greater and she is more able to think about him without hurt and so can use his words in her world – or as a tattoo.
This is not really a coming-of-age story, although it is a bit, but a finding-the-balance of love between mothers and daughters and letting go. The book is extremely well-written, it just didn’t do it for me.