“Not for the first time, I cursed my name… It was the only thing my mother had given me before she ran off with a man from God knows where when I was a few days old”, the narrator of Mary Watson’s The Wren Hunt tells us in the first pages of this beautifully crafted novel. Her name is Wren. The novel opens on Saint Stephen’s Day, or the Day of the Wren, as the public holiday is also known in Ireland. It takes place on 26 December and commemorates the Christian martyr who according to some legends was betrayed to his enemies by a wren. Other tales record an occasion when the presence of Irish soldiers was revealed to the Vikings by a wren on Saint Stephen’s Day, and until about a century ago, boys traditionally hunted wrens on that day, displaying the dead birds and collecting money for celebrations of the occasion. Today, live birds or model wrens still form part of the observance.
In Watson’s novel, which is set in modern-day Ireland and gloriously infused with the folklore and fables of the land, it is her protagonist Wren who is hunted by the boys in the woods around their village, Kilshamble: “In the village, they said that the woods weren’t friendly after sundown. They said bad things lurked in the forest, hidden behind the dank, fallen boughs. The good people of Kilshamble liked nothing more than blood and gore. We were fed gruesome stories with mother’s milk.” Wren does not believe in the stories, “except on those days when the light was violet and the wind blew wild and the forest and fields felt restless.” And she is connected to them in mysterious ways. She is no ordinary girl and knows that the game the boys execute with the hunt is no ordinary play. Wren is a member of one of the ancient draoithe clans of the augurs and the boys belong to the judges – the two “would never be friends”. Caught in the clutches of David, the leader of the hunt, and his evil-meaning accomplices, Wren decides that enough is enough. She feels humiliated and frustrated when David cuts a lock of her hair; she is afraid “what dark magic he might do” with it.
Wren, David and their clans live in a world where magic rules all manner of engagement. After her mother abandons her, Wren is brought up by Smith and Maeve, her remaining family. It is Maeve who “had shown me the old ways, the secret traditions passed down through the generations. Some of them so old they came from the time when draoithe were one, with no division, no hostility. A time when we worked together as the prophets, poets, arbiters and advisers to kings.” But the time of unity is long over and the augurs and the judges are entwined in a battle for control and power.
When Wren’s family hatches a plan to strengthen their weakening position against the judges, Wren begins working as an intern for the Harkness Foundation and Calista Harkness, the owner of the Lucas Archive which contains a precious map of the mystical Daragishka Knot stones: “The stones are our only hope. If we don’t get them, it’s the beginning of the end of us. It happened to the bards, don’t think it won’t happen to us.” Secretly, Wren hopes that her search will also lead her to her lost mother.
As she is still waiting for her talent to reveal itself fully, Wren is flooded by visions and dreams which are difficult to decipher. She sees patterns in random things. It is not impossible that she might be able to see the future, but she is very much aware that the ability might come at a high price, since “pretty much everyone who’d had this talent ended up losing their minds”.
A chance encounter with a stranger at a coffee shop threatens to upturn Wren’s life in a way known to many of us, whether we believe in the magic of this world or not: she loses her heart to a boy with “marble eyes”: “Glancing up, I noticed his eyes. They were deep sludge. Murky eyes that might have been blue but were darkened to grey. Eyes like the sky on a rainy day.” The boy also has a tattoo that Wren recognises from one of her dark visions. She knows it is a warning, perhaps even a warning to back away from her family’s plan, but nothing is certain. And when she realises that the boy she has just met belongs (as has been the case for most great love stories of all times) to the enemy’s camp, she enters a treacherous world of confusion and secrets where she no longer knows whom to trust and whose ideals to follow. Gradually, the signs and her heart begin to point in an entirely different direction to the one initially set out for her by her family.
Watson, who is South African but lives in Ireland, is a highly acclaimed writer of short stories; her “Jungfrau” from the remarkable collection Moss won the prestigious Caine Prize in 2006. She is also the author of a haunting novel, The Cutting Room (2013). The Wren Hunt is her first book for young adults and will form part of a series. Watson’s exquisitely evocative prose and her penchant for distinct stories have been the main features of her oeuvre up to date. The Wren Hunt – with its lyrical, mythical storytelling – is a magical treat and an exceptional addition to the genre. It is a long time since a novel of this kind stole my own literary heart. Its supernatural elements are woven into the quotidian reality in ways that will make you see the world in a different light and awaken a longing for magic and the guiding, restorative power of love.
The Wren Hunt
by Mary Watson
Review first published in the Cape Times, 6 April 2018.