Tag Archives: Dublin

Molly Fox’s Birthday by Deirdre Madden 

It is a great time to be reading Irish writers at the moment. I’m looking forward to reading The Wren, The Wrenby Anne Enright. It is my suggestion for our reading group later this year and has been shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction this year. Our group has enjoyed The Queen of Dirt Island by Donal Ryan (2022) as well as Claire Keegan’s short fiction. Deirdre Madden was not familiar to me until I read a review on Jacquiwine’s blog earlier this year. I am pleased to say that the author has written seven other novels which I expect to sample because I enjoyed this novel a great deal.

Molly Fox’s Birthday

Molly Fox’s Birthday unwinds over one day, Midsummer’s Day, in the early years of this century, possibly in 2006. There are no chapter divisions, very little dialogue, to break the momentum, only occasional gaps in the lines. It is told in the first person, but we never learn the narrator’s name. 

She is a friend of the actor Molly Fox and is staying in her flat in Dublin. She wakes in Molly’s flat, notices her belongings, remembers their shared past, meets her neighbours, brother and friends, and as the day moves on, she tries to understand how well she knows Molly and these other people and what people reveal to each other.

Our narrator is a playwright and she has planned to work on her new play during the time she is staying in Dublin. The novel explores how people perform themselves, how their interior and exterior selves match or are mismatched, and how they are seen and remembered by others. 

Molly and the narrator meet when the narrator’s first play is being performed, and both their careers take off at this point. They have been friends ever since, but the writer puzzles over how well she knows Molly, even after 20 years. For example, the day is Molly’s birthday, but the actor never celebrates it and it is only late in the novel we realise why this is. The writer has assumed wrongly it is because Molly does not want to damage her career by revealing her true age. 

They have a mutual friend, Andrew, who is a TV art pundit and has taken on a very different presentation of himself since his student days. The writer watches one of his programmes, and later he turns up himself and reveals an episode which the writer had known nothing of, although she knows about his marriage and fatherhood. She also considers how the murder of his brother in the Troubles impacted upon Andrew’s life. 

Molly’s brother Fergus calls on her during the day. She realises that he is not as Molly has presented him, and that she has never met him without Molly being present. She had understood him to be very dependent upon Molly, his mental health being severely damaged and spending time in and out of mental institutions. After talking with him her view alters.

This new Fergus was a man of wisdom and acute moral knowledge. He had had the courage and insight to inspect his own life more closely than most would dare to do, and he had compassion and forgiveness for those who had hurt him. […] It didn’t matter that his life, in social terms, was not a success. To expect someone to gain a mature perspective on their troubled life, as he had, and to also expect them to have worked out to their advantage all those other things such as property, relationships and career that we mistakenly confuse with life itself – that would have been unreasonable. What he had achieved seemed to me more precious by far. (155-6)

She spends time thinking about her own brother, who is Catholic priest, and who seems to be the person nearest her own interests in her family, despite her lack of religion. And so it goes on. The paragraph quoted above is characteristic of the writer’s musings.

The writer finds it harder and harder to settle down to work and instead she surrenders to the quest to understand her friends and their family. Towards the end of the day she decides that it won’t be a play she writes, it will be a novel – implying this novel.

Such a novel, focused on the question of how we know people, depends upon the depiction of the characters, rather than the narrative drive. Deirdre Madden manages this very well. The characters are distinct, they change, they influence each other in an authentic manner. 

§§§

Recommended by Jacquiwine in her blog in March 2024. Her praise for the novel encouraged me to read it.

Simon on his blog called Stuck in a Book also has high praise for this novel (December 2019).

It is interesting that this book appears to have rested on people’s bookshelves for some time, and yet still impresses.

Molly Fox’s Birthday by Deirdre Madden, published in 2008 by Faber. I used the paperback edition published in 2013. 221pp

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Actress by Anne Enright 

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.

Actress

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. 

Anne Enright

Anne Enright

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.

Related posts

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.

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