Actress by Anne Enright

Published by Vintage

The mother-daughter relationship at the centre of Anne Enright’s stunning new novel, Actress, isn’t your typical tumultuous, love-hate affair that is often at the heart of books concerned with families. Although it’s complicated and not without its share of ups and downs, theirs is a bond that knows no bounds. Despite the outward lack of conflict between the pair, Enright’s unparalled skill for creating complex, interesting and three-dimensional characters, weaves together to span a story concerned with the changing roles of women over generations, particularly those in the entertainment industry, or associated with it.

Norah is the daughter of Katherine O’Dell, a once famous star of stage and screen who was born into illustrious theatrical stock. Although born and raised for the first few years of her life in London, to Irish parents, Katherine styles herself as the great Irish dame, and her breakout role as a spirited Irish nun on the front-line of WW1 marked her as such, not to mention her not-so-natural flaming red hair. A pinch of Maureen O’Hara, a touch of Siobhán McKenna , even a dash of Máire Nic Shiubhlaigh, Katherine is the sum of many parts, but also a character like no other.

In later life, when the roles begin to dry up and be given to younger actresses Katherine becomes a Dublin society maven, hosting legendary parties with the great and good of Ireland’s theatrical, literary and artistic luminaries in attendance. Among them is Boyd O’Neill and Niall Duggan, two self-styled giants of their fields, who will play pivotal roles in the lives of mother and daughter.

The story is told by Norah as if to her husband. She is casting her voice into the ether, or maybe simply a recording device, or perhaps writing a letter; we, the readers, are rewarded with a valuable insight into what a wife shares with her spouse of many decades. She goes non-linearly through her mother’s biography, from the Irish acting circuit days where her parents’ troupe visited towns famous for their theatrical societies and thirst for theatre, including Tuam, to her mother’s big break on stage in London and then the waning years that resulted in incarceration for a bizarre and unhinged crime.

Norah also outlines where her and her mother’s stories converge, and how and why she was never, herself, bitten by the acting bug. Speaking about her mother’s entertaining she observes, “they sat in the upstairs living room, a place furnished, one way or another, from the stages of Dublin, so you were always sitting in character, you were just not sure which one.” Norah’s peripheral view of the artifice of her mother’s world affords her a certain removal from the pomp and makes her a valuable fly on the wall for the reader, stripping the glamour away, removing the gild from the lily.

She speaks of the natural, collective fawning over the famous; “Oliver Reed started a bar fight in the local pub, which subsequently put up a plaque”. A journalist interested in her mother interviews her, and casts her own theories about Katherine’s driving forces and sexuality. It’s something we as humans are prone to do; filling in gaps to create a whole picture; whether the gaps are filled by something near truth or more close to fiction doesn’t really matter, when it seems to make sense. Norah is the only one who knows the full story of her mother’s downfall and even then it’s one person’s version of events.

Katherine’s innate charisma is both a treasured gift and a curse. “What is it about heterosexual men? I have seen it so many times. That pang they get when a good-looking woman smiles at them, as though she has just humiliated them in some way”. Enright’s fluid, witty prose that lacks pretension but oozes intelligence and wit perfectly drives the narrative, which, like any good drama, boasts comedy and tragedy in equal measure, and like life, the conflicting genres often overlap with an absurdity we can all relate to. The two women at the centre of the story carve their own paths, but the most significant incidents that take them off-course are instigated by men. Some of the detours are for the better, most are not, but it’s not a blame game. Rather, an insightful, enormously rewarding examination of control; by men over women, by mothers over daughters and ultimately over one’s own destiny.

  • First published in The Tuam Herald on 08 04 20

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