Actress by Anne Enright

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Reviewed by Harriet

Why have I never read Anne Enright before? I’m always interested in Booker prize winners (she won for The Gathering in 2007) and I’m a great admirer of good Irish writing (cf. Sebastian Barry). I think it was the title that finally got me, no doubt owing to my own theatre background and the fact that I was once an aspiring, though not very good, actress myself. Enright had a brief career in theatre too, and worked for many years as a television producer, and her husband Martin Murphy was involved in theatre for a long time.  So I suppose she was uniquely suited to writing about this enticing, deceptive world.

The narrator of this novel is Norah. She is a novelist, happily married with two adult children. But though her own life and relationships form part of the story, Norah has reached the point where she needs to write about her mother, Katherine O’Dell, who died at fifty-eight, the exact age that Norah herself has now reached. We know from the start that Katherine, a once famous film star who reinvented herself in Irish theatre, had ended up in a mental institution following an incident when she shot a well-known producer in the foot. But it’s a visit from a PhD student whose dissertation will aim to reveal ‘what O’Dell was really like’ that precipitates Norah’s exploration of what she actually knows about Katherine. The student’s plan has actually irritated her, but while she’s fuming away, her husband quietly says ‘Why don’t you write it yourself?’

This is a novel that meanders between locations and time frames, but it’s none the worse for that. Indeed, it makes it all the more intriguing as Norah combines her own memories with careful research into her mother’s life. One of the first things she does is to visit London where, despite Katherine’s claims of Irishness, her mother was in fact born. Her parents were successful touring actors, and only moved to Ireland when Katherine was ten. She appeared on stage with them when she was a child, and by the age of eighteen had progressed so far in the profession that she was starring in a play on London’s West End stage. The following year, back in New York, she reconstructed herself as Irish, dyeing her hair red, adding an apostrophe to her surname, and adopting an Irish accent. Yes, Katherine is a ‘great fake’.

For a few years, Katherine’s self-made image brings her considerable success in films, but at the age of twenty-six, unmarried and pregnant, she gives birth in Brooklyn and then retreats to Ireland. Now, though initially still successful on stage, her greatest fame now rests on a butter commercial – her catchphrase ‘Sure, it’s only butter’ enters the language – slowly, as she ages, her career declines.

Meanwhile, Norah is growing up. Entwined with her mother’s story is her own. Her early boyfriends, one of whom she later marries (and to whom, in quiet asides, we learn that the book is addressed), the house they buy in Bray, outside Dublin, her development as a writer, and her two children, emerge slowly from the narrative. It’s good to know that the marriage is overall a happy one – Norah speaks tenderly to her husband when she wakes him up in the morning: ‘Even though I have dragged you from your dream, you are pleased to see me there. It feels like forgiveness, every time.’

Most of all, though, what Norah is trying to make sense of is her relationship with her mother. Trawling through newspaper articles she happens on a photograph of her own twenty-first birthday party. In the picture she and Katherine are leaning together over a magnificent birthday cake. It looks like the capturing of a spontaneous moment, but she remembers clearly that ‘it was all staged’. And yet, despite the obviously constructed nature of so much of her mother’s life, there are happy memories of times of great closeness and empathy.

Gradually, as the narrative progresses, the story behind Katherine’s attack on the movie producer Boyd O’Neill is revealed. With her career in the doldrums, she had written a film script and sent it to him, only to have it rejected. The end result of the shooting is Katherine’s apprehension by the police and her subsequent incarceration in the asylum. Norah visits her, but finds her bearing almost no relationship to her previous self. ‘Most of the time – I don’t know how to explain it – she was only incidentally my mother’.

‘What was she like’ is the question Enright begins the novel with. It’s the question Norah is most often asked. ‘I try to figure out if they mean as a normal person: what was she like in her slippers, eating toast and marmalade, or what was she like as a mother, or what she was like as an actress – we did not use the word star’. This is what the PhD student is seeking, though her underlying purpose is to construct Katherine as a feminist icon. Ironically what she will never discover is that Norah’s own birth, as she finally discovers after years of trying to get her mother to tell her who her father was, resulted from a distressing sexual trauma.

This is a novel of great skill and subtlety. Enright’s prose is seductively beautiful and her mesmeric plot, with all its twists and turns and gradual revelations, makes the novel a joy to read.

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Harriet is one of the editors of Shiny New Books

Anne Enright, Actress (Jonathan Cape, 2020). 978-1787332065, 272 pp., hardback.

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