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.
On the face of it, Actress shouldn’t be as powerful a novel as it is. It’s full of clichés: the ingénue actress, the bad man, the older, alcoholic actress dosed up to her eyeballs on lithium, the other bad man. But to reduce this novel to its plot components traduces it – like forcing an object into a container that doesn’t fit. Many novels about actresses seem weary of their subject matter, desperate to prove that their interest in celebrity belongs to the deeper, morally righteous trade of Literature. Enright has no such boring qualms and showbusiness is well within her scope. She understands the illusion; she also understands the cost. Of Katherine she writes: ‘It was exhausting, we all knew it. It took everything she had, this business of getting into character, and then painfully, coming out of character. It was such a long journey back to the real world.’ Actress depicts an Ireland of the past, but there is, thankfully, no nostalgia here. Katherine is an IRA sympathiser – more for show than for politics – and that black period of history is deftly handled. Self-delusion and nostalgia mingle; one can’t exist without the other.
Her story is made for tragedy, but the tragedy is never quite realized, and this for a good and admirable reason: that she never submits to it, never consents to defeat. She may be an absurd woman – a fake, as her daughter says – but she plays the part she has written for herself with bravado. No doubt in real life such a woman would be tiresome. On the page she is splendid. And there is this to be said for Norah: she sees her mother as she is but contrives to remain loyal, loving and admiring. This is not a perfect novel, even, after its early brilliance, a somewhat disappointing one...
Enright prefers to end sentences tidily, on fully or half-stressed syllables. This creates an air that’s soothing, but with a faintly uncanny edge: the conviction in Norah’s voice is hypnotic. Many of her observations are enviably elegant. Remembering parties at home, for example, she thinks of “a stage in the drinking when faces went slow and the room filled with difficulty”. Elsewhere, she wonders: “What else should a beautiful woman be but contemptuous?” It’s hard to disagree.
Most of all, Actress does what novels so rarely do: shows us both sides of everything, the performance and the reality, up close and distant, the division between the person we know and the person we see. As James Salter put it, “there are really two kinds of life. There is the one people believe you are living, and there is the other. It is this other which causes the trouble, this other we long to see”.
It is striking how often reviews of Enright’s work return to the phrase “at the level of the sentence”. Certainly, she writes “the most extraordinary sentences”, but reading or isolating her at this level, as many critics seem tempted to do, risks overshadowing how her sentences are pleated throughout, risks undermining the musicality of the entire composition. Enright’s sentences have many levels, and her books have four-dimensional shapes too, because the fourth dimension – call it “timespace” – is always hovering just underneath all those sentences. All of which is a complicated way of saying that, like eating oysters, you need to read her books whole. “What I’m finally interested in”, said Enright in another interview, “is work that keeps moving. I’m interested in things that are not static.” With each new book, this slowly rotating mobile of sentences gets more fascinatingly complicated while managing to appear much simpler.
The narrative dances through plays, boozing and parties, interrupted by Norah’s commentary on, say, the logistics of having one’s shoe removed for a champagne toast by Ivor Novello, or a funny aside: “Hard to know if she had lost a man or gained a story.” Enright dwells, intriguingly, on passivity, a state common in acting, womanhood and living in Ireland. “We lived in the passive tense in those more difficult… times,” says Norah. “The way you could get yourself robbed, or, especially, raped.”... But what worries Norah is what was real about their relationship, a fear that Katherine was only playing the role of mother, too: “She did not need to pretend to be my mother, when she was my mother already.” It’s a sad thought, swiftly tempered by the light-heartedness that makes Actress such a winning read: that her mother’s doubleness “was like double cream”.
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.
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”.
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 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.
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?”
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.