There are leaps of joy in Actress, for all its darkness. It sparkles with light, rapid, shrugging wit; cliches are skewered in seconds, and thespian types are affectionately set in motion to carry on chatting in the margins. The magic of pre-war touring players, holding audiences rapt in country halls, is richly done. “It was all built out of cardboard, greasepaint and panic,” but the play was there waiting for young Katherine, “a space she could step into, or that stepped into her”. The older Katherine remains unmistakably a star, even while eating toast in the kitchen. Enright catches her winks and smiles, the flick of her wrist, her way of saying “marvellous” on the phone.
This is a slow read — for the first quarter, almost deal-breakingly so — but gradually the subtleties form into something profound and complex. Norah’s voice may be self-effacing but her observations are sharp and true. She notes, for instance, how the film producer is one of those men who believe “it is their interest which makes something interesting”. She is ostensibly focused on her mother’s story, but from time to time she weaves in formative events of her own: how she lost her virginity, for example, or met the husband to whom she has been married for 40 years. During these passages, she addresses her husband intimately as “you”.
This novel achieves what no real actor’s memoir could. There is an understanding about not understanding what makes a great actor (although Norah touches on the stillness at the heart of some great performances). The daughter writes as a sage non-star but, before long, youth emerges as the great upstager. The passages that describe Norah’s life seem blessedly free compared with those about her mother. Enright triumphs as a chameleon: memoirist, journalist, critic, daughter – her emotional intelligence knows no bounds. This is a study of possession that includes the subtly implied pain of having to share your mother with a crowd and of being obliged to admire her from afar. If, towards the end, the novel runs away with itself (the scene in which a hare is buried at an Irish television centre lost me), it is always at the service of life’s jumbled truths. A sea view in Bray, outside Dublin, proves to be as good a pausing place as any and Enright is to be congratulated on not seeking to tidy up life for show, in allowing loose ends to be themselves.
Actress is a deeply humane, often darkly funny novel about the exercise of power over sexually attractive women. The grim subject matter is illuminated by Enright’s acute sensitivity to language:
‘Beset’ is a good word for a man who ‘went and got himself shot’, as Dublin likes to phrase these things — the way you could get yourself robbed or, especially, raped. We lived in the passive tense in those more difficult — certainly more tactful — times.
The novel revisits a question first raised in The Gathering: ‘Who am I to touch, to handle and discard, the stuff of a mother’s love?’ Enright proves, once again, her genius at doing exactly that.
Enright has said that “a novel should give you something to think about”. If Actress lacks the robust characterisations of some of her other novels, it does leave you with things to think about: we come away considering complex gender dynamics in a more nuanced way. When a young journalist trying to portray Katherine as a feminist hero writes about “what men do”, Norah challenges the generalisation. “What about the [women] they love?” she asks. “Or is that still allowed?”
Enright, has a knack for identifying a female perspective such as the pique the daughter feels when she tracks down an elderly man to ask about her mother, only to find that his attention is distracted from her - the intelligent woman - by his nubile girlfriend.
It’s a good read in the sense of a story well told, but not in the sense that you really must find out what happens next; if you want a novel that’s compelling rather than elegiac, this isn’t it.
Booker-winning Anne Enright excels at parsing the hidden fibres of family life but she comes a cropper with this frustrating biography of fictional famous Irish actress Katherine O'Dell, narrated by her daughter, Norah...
Enright writes with insight and compassion on an industry that loves to chew up and spit out the female body, but Norah's loving act of testimony to her mother's life struggles to acquire its own power.
“There are lots of people who can be clever with words,” Enright has observed, “which is different from being right with them.” Inevitably, choosing to make her narrator a professional writer offers her the perfect excuse to show off her own skill with words. Sentence after sentence is laid down with the solidity of a line of bricks, transforming ordinary life into something beautiful and strange. Bottles and glasses appear silhouetted on a table “like a miniature cityscape”; the need in middle age to get up in the middle of the night means that “you hang on to sleep as if hanging on to youth itself”. Every word feels right.
The novel only comes alive as a daughter’s ambivalent first-hand account, streaming with intimate detail-memories of Katherine saying “‘an’ hotel”, or the way she received her ovation, as if surprised at the audience’s presence. A number of brief, personal-snapshot chapters (“A word in passing about my mother at a funeral”) point to the road not taken. Enright might have been better served by a mode like that used by Janet Malcolm in her episodic profile of the painter David Salle (“Forty-One False Starts”), or by adopting the philosophy of how to grasp an elusive subject espoused by Fitzgerald’s Cecilia Brady – “dimly and in flashes”.
Pleated with caveats and qualifications, Enright’s sentences – the wise, wrong-footing voice that she also uses in her journalism – insist on life’s messiness. There’s never just one story. Katherine may have been a film star, but she’s known best, it turns out, for delivering the catchphrase in a 1970s butter commercial. She’s an Irish icon who isn’t actually Irish. Born Katherine Anne FitzMaurice in London, she later took her mother’s surname, Odell; the apostrophe was added as part of a marketing hustle inspired by a typo in a review of an early Broadway appearance. And what it even means to be an Irish icon is called into question when Katherine shows up at the RTE studios for a late-career interview, only to find her name means nothing to the Polish-sounding security guy.
Seventh novel from the Booker Prize-winning author (The Gathering, 2007) is the story of Irish theatre legend, and one-time Hollywood star, Katherine O'Dell, relayed by her only child, Norah FitzMaurice. Norah, a novelist and mother-of-two, is now older than her mother was when she died. As Norah traces her mother's life, and her secrets, including the mystery of who her father is, the novel moves from wartime rural Ireland to America in the 50s and 1970s Dublin, Enright explores the nature of fame, and the damage it inflicts. Brilliant.