I picked up a copy of this novel in my local Oxfam bookshop. I was very impressed by The Green Road which I had read some years ago. I remember being especially moved by the section about the experiences of one of the characters in New York at the height of the HIV/AIDs epidemic in 1991. I found it unbearable sad. And also in that novel an excessive Christmas food shopping trip made a deep impression on me. She does families and Ireland so well.
I was not disappointed by Actress, although I missed its publication. We are again in the territory of families, this time a mother-daughter relationship. As the title suggests, stardom, fame and the commercial value of female sexuality are themes of this novel.
The novel is narrated by Norah, the daughter of the fictitious great Irish actress, Katherine O’Dell. She is looking back from her middle age, at her mother’s life and death. Norah is a novelist, with several successful books to her name, but she is aware that she has never explored her relationship with her mother in her fiction. From time to time she addresses her husband, but the focus of the story is the relationship between the star, the mother, her social circle and the young Norah.
This is the opening paragraph of the novel.
People ask me, ‘What was she like?’ and 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 was she like as an actress – we did not use the word star. Mostly though they, they mean what was she like before she went crazy, as though their own mother might turn overnight, like a bottle of milk left out of the fridge. Or they might themselves be secretly askew. (1)
The book is framed by the visit of a PhD student who does indeed want to know what she was like and wishes to explore what she calls the sexual style of Katherine O’Dell. She comes to interview Norah many years after Katherine O’Dell’s death. In later correspondence she suggests that Katherine was the first Irish feminist. The reader is being shown multiple interpretations of a life.
Katherine O’Dell is an actress, and one of her key roles is to act being Irish despite being born and growing up in London in a family of travelling actors. They come to Ireland during the war when she is a young woman, and her career takes off from there. She adopts Ireland fully, performing her Irishness in her Hollywood parts, in the Irish roles that she is given to play such as the young Irish lass selling Irish butter in an iconic advertisement, and she adopts the Irish theatre world and the cause of Irish republicanism.
Norah is unable to discover the identity of her father. But as she tells the story she keeps circulating back to her happy childhood in Dublin when she is much loved by her mother and enjoys her theatrical circle. When Norah becomes and active teen, Kath is less able to forgive the men she sleeps with, perhaps feeling that they are stealing her away from her mother.
There have many, many men in Katherine O’Dell’s life, both in the official Hollywood version and in the life that Norah experiences. The priest, Father Des, is her psychiatrist, but also her long-term lover. There are producers and actors, and the men who dominate the Dublin literary scene. Some of the events occur during the Troubles, and some into the ‘80s. It is in the nature of stardom, especially sexualised stardom that eventually the fame will recede, the parts become fewer and the audience less familiar with the actor and the periods of resting are extended.
She was much sought after, until she isn’t. She begins to show some rather manic behaviours, culminating in shooting Boyd O’Neill in the foot. He was one of her mother’s contacts in the film industry, but he does not take her scripts seriously. This was his evidence in court:
All he was doing, he said. All he was doing, with my mother’s idea, or synopsis, or whatever it was she had sent to him, was bouncing the ball. It was a way to keep his connections interested until the right idea came along. […]
He really thought he was doing my mother’s idea a favour by having it himself. When you see this happen, as I did that day, you see it quite a lot, and it remains a very strange thing – the ability of a man like Boyd to assume it is their interest which makes something interesting. As though, if he shut his eyes, the world would be really dull.
Anyway, she shot him for it. There was always that to consider. (239-40)
She is incarcerated in an insane asylum. And dies soon after her release. Norah investigates her mother’s life over the next years, resulting in this novel. It is beautifully written, precise, and with telling details and images that resonate. Picture a mother going off like milk, as in the first paragraph, for example.
Born in 1962 and raised in Ireland, Anne Enright has won some prestigious prizes, including being the first Laureate for Irish fiction 2015-2018. In 2007 she won the Man Booker Prize for The Gathering. She has written short stories, non-fiction and seven novels. She lives in Dublin.
Actress by Anne Enright, published in 2020 by Vintage. 264pp. Actress was longlisted for Women’s Prize for Fiction 2020.
The Green Road by Anne Enright (Bookword, February 2016)
Actress by Anne Enright review – boundless emotional intelligence, by Kate Kellaway (The Guardian, February 2020)
Actress by Anne Enright review – the spotlight of fame, by Alexandra Hass (The Guardian, February 2020)
Reviewed on Jacquiwine’s Journal blog (July 2020)
Reviewed on Kate Vane’s blog (February 2020)
In January 2020 Anne Enright was a guest on the BBC’s Desert Island Discs.