We analyze the absorption of solar radiation by silicon nanowire arrays, which are being considered for photovoltaic applications. These structures have been shown to have enhanced absorption compared with thin films, however the mechanism responsible for this is not understood. Using a new, semi-analytic model, we show that the enhanced absorption can be attributed to a few modes of the array, which couple well to incident light, overlap well with the nanowires, and exhibit strong Fabry-Pérot resonances. For some wavelengths the absorption is further enhanced by slow light effects. We study the evolution of these modes with wavelength to explain the various features of the absorption spectra, focusing first on a dilute array at normal incidence, before generalizing to a dense array and off-normal angles of incidence. The understanding developed will allow for optimization of simple SiNW arrays, as well as the development of more advanced designs.