Actress by Anne Enright

Actress, the latest novel by the esteemed Irish writer Anne Enright, is a beautiful, meandering meditation on a mother-daughter relationship defined by fame. The story is narrated by Norah, a middle-aged writer with five novels under her belt. And yet, she has never tackled the one story that really needs to be written – that of her mother, the once-famous actress, Katherine O’Dell.

Prompted by a request from a rather pretentious researcher looking to define Katherine’s sexual style, Norah embarks upon a winding exploration of her mother’s life, visiting key places, recalling memories and examining old anecdotes, all to better understand the woman behind the myth.

Katherine O’Dell was forty-five years old. She wasn’t forty-five the way people do forty-five these days. She smoked thirty a day and she drank from 6 till whenever. My mother never ate a vegetable unless she was on a diet; she did not, I think, possess a pair of shoes without heels. She talked all day, and got bitter in the evening, when the wine made her face swell and her eyes very green. (p. 11)

Katherine died in 1986 at the age of fifty-eight, pretty much the age that Norah is now as she reflects on her mother’s tumultuous life. We learn of Katherine’s youth, the years spent travelling the country towns of Ireland, her parents performing in McMaster’s theatrical ensemble during the 1940s. It is as part of this rep company that Katherine gets her first taste of the stage, stepping into a role at short notice when one of the young actresses is taken ill with scarlet fever.

At the age of eighteen, Katherine moves to London with a girlfriend where they share lodgings in Notting Hill. Through her job as receptionist for a theatrical impresario, Katherine is the beneficiary of another lucky break when a director casts her as the lead in a play opening at The Criterion. The production is a tremendous success, ultimately transferring to Broadway, where Katherine soon finds herself being styled as an Irish heroine, complete with her dyed red hair and clothes spanning every colour as long as it’s a shade of green.

By the age of twenty, Katherine is effectively the property of her movie studio – her private life scrutinised by their publicity department, her lifestyle monitored and marketed to the press. The studio even insists she get married to boost her image, and a sham wedding to a sculptor, Philip Greenwood, follows suit. The career-defining role comes when Katherine is cast as a field nurse in a New York production, A Prayer Before Morning. The play is romantic, dramatic and tragic, a performance that brings Katherine to Hollywood and ultimately worldwide fame.

Katherine O’Dell thought she was offering something to the crowd, of joy or of pain. In later years, she considered herself some sort of sacrifice – set aflame, perhaps, by the glare of their attention. But, you know, maybe she was just standing up there, emoting in the light. (p. 66)

Through Norah’s sifting of various memories, insights and reflections, a complex portrait of Katherine emerges. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there is a strong element of performance to several aspects of Katherine’s behaviour. We see a glamorous woman enjoying the attention of her admirers, flirting with the men who hang around her house by day and night. There are many lovers, of course, not least Norah’s father, whose identity remains an elusive mystery never to be revealed.

While Norah is aware of her mother as an object of adoration and fantasy, she also sees another aspect Katherine’s personality, a more vulnerable, insecure side – a single mother eager for the respect and admiration of the daughter who watches quietly from the wings. There are moments of real tenderness in some of Norah’s memories, especially from their time back in Ireland during the 1950s. (By this time, Katherine is living as a single mother in Dublin, her once-glamorous career now beginning to wane.)

I much preferred our winter quarters in the basement kitchen, where we were more private. There was a big old range cooker down there, with a big easy chair beside it and a shelf above of old newspapers and forgotten ornaments, which included a china dog and a snow globe of New York, fogged over with cooking grease. The floor was chequered with black and red tiles, of which the red were a little more porous and worn so the bentwood chairs always had a wobble in them. I liked wriggling about on these chairs; getting up, re-setting, making good. (p. 31)

By the age of forty-seven, Katherine can no longer get away with playing women in their twenties, irrespective of the intensive beauty regime she maintains. There is a slide into obscurity as Katherine’s star continues to fade. Loneliness sets in; a reliance on alcohol becomes more intense; and the onset of mental health issues is clearly apparent. Norah’s days at the Dublin home are punctuated by the sound of Katherine hammering away on the typewriter – frenetic bursts of activity interspersed with deathly silences in the quest to write a screenplay worthy of production. It is during this period that Katherine becomes increasingly desperate and unhinged; and yet, she is forever the performer.

Everything went missing – the right blouse, the right shoes, lipstick, Pan-stik, curling tongs. She blundered from room to room and wailed. I had learned, from a very young age, to go very still while my mother got herself ready for the world. I always knew where to find her keys. Out of her bedroom, back into the bedroom for some forgotten thing, patting herself down as she clattered down the stairs. Finally, at the hall door, she turned to the mirror to put herself together and this was a wonderful thing to witness – the way she locked eyes with her own reflection and fixed, by some imperceptible shift, into her public self. A tiny realignment of the shoulders, neck, chin; each element lifted and balanced, as though on hidden weights and wires, around the taut line of her gaze. (pp. 177–178)

Woven into these explorations of Katherine, both as a human being and as an icon, are Norah’s reflections on her own life – in particular her relationships with men, including her husband with whom she clearly has a deep yet complex relationship. There is a ‘you’ who appears now and again in the narrative – ostensibly Norah’s husband, although there is the possibility of a wider audience too.

By inserting these meditations into the narrative, we see how Katherine’s presence has shaped Norah as an individual, how the sexual freedom Norah enjoys threatens her mother, making Katherine feel old and no longer attractive. They also provide Enright with the opportunity to highlight various aspects of Irish culture, particularly the idea that saying ‘no’ really can mean ‘no’ and not ‘yes’. These insights reveal the passive side of Irish society, a culture that often shifts the balance of blame towards the victim – Dublin being a place where you might get yourself shot, ‘robbed or, especially, raped’, with individuals frequently finding themselves in dire straits. While I found Norah’s reflections on her own life somewhat less engaging (more self-absorbed, even?) than those on Katherine, I could see how they added an extra dimension to the narrative, another layer to consider.

In short, Actress is a beautiful, reflective meditation on a complicated mother-daughter relationship. It’s an exploration of the individual behind the myth, one that also raises questions about the ownership of personal image, sexual power and the nature of Irish culture over the years. The writing is top-notch, with Enright bringing a wonderful sense of irony and wit to many of her observations. I particularly loved the evocation of the theatrical world with its mix of glamour and unexpected sights, the hum of the audience detectable in the background. I’ll finish with a final quote, one that captures this magical atmosphere at its best.

It was a place of secret corridors and blind ends. There was a sudden or hidden door, which revealed, when you opened it, your own reflection in the full-length mirror on the opposite wall. This room had a bicycle in the corner, a double sink, bunches of flowers stuffed into jars, a long counter, where a woman sat fixing a fan of green feathers into her hair. […] Backstage was the best place, where everyone was mixed up and undone. (p. 120)

Actress is published by Jonathan Cape; personal copy. 

25 thoughts on “Actress by Anne Enright

  1. Liz

    I picked this up when it was longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction and have rather lost sight of it since. Your lovely review has reminded me to get back to it, thank you!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Cool. I was quite surprised that it didn’t make the shortlist for the Women’s Prize given the reviews I’d seen beforehand; but then again, I’ve only read on other book on the list – Bernadine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other.

      Reply
      1. Liz

        It was a strong longlist but I was surprised not to see this one or The Dutch House shortlisted. Overall, though, it shows how valuable the prize is in showcasing the wealth and range of excellent writing by female authors.

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Yes, it’s an important prize. Probably one of the few to have a reasonably high profile amongst the general reading public (outside of the blogosphere/Book Twitter bubble).

          Reply
  2. A Life in Books

    I’m so glad you enjoyed this one, Jacqui. I’ve yet to read it but I’m an Enright fan and had been a little dismayed by Kim’s disappointment at Reading Matters as she’s an ardent fan, too.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      This is only the second Enright I’ve read, but I much preferred it to The Forgotten Waltz. The Green Road seems to be the one that several readers love and admire, so maybe I’ll take a look at it at some point. In the meantime, I’ll be interested to see what you make of Actress, particularly in comparison to Enright’s other books!

      Reply
  3. Janakay | YouMightAsWellRead

    Ooooh Jacqui! Such a treat, to wake up here in muggy, humid North America to your review of a novel I’ve had on my stand-by list (that’s one notch up from my TBR mountain) for several months now; in fact, since I read the initial reviews. Although I admire her skill enormously, I’m not a huge Enright fan. To be fair, however, I’ve yet to read more than a couple of her novels (The Green Road was the last). This one sounds right up my alley, with its complicated, ambiguous relationships and myth vs reality aspects. Thanks for the quotes — Enright really is a beautiful writer.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You’re very welcome. It’s interesting that you use the word ‘admire’ when describing your feelings towards this author as that’s kind of how I feel about her too. This book is extremely well written, and I certainly feel more of a connection with Katherine than with the characters from my only other Enright, The Forgotten Waltz. And yet, even here, something about Norah stops me from loving the novel as a whole. I suppose it’s just a little niggle in the wider scheme of things, especially as the writing is so good..but still, I find myself admiring Enright rather than loving her unreservedly! I’ll be interested to see what you make of it as and when…

      Reply
  4. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Lovely review Jacqui, and the quotes do show what a beautiful prose writer she is. The mother-daughter dynamic is a complex one, and I sense that some parts of the story resonated a little less with you. Nevertheless, she’s obviously an author to explore!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I really loved the sections about Katherine, partly because of the era – as you well know, the 1940s and ’50s are right up my street. :)

      Reply
  5. heavenali

    Lovely review Jacqui, Enright is such a good writer as is demonstrated by the quotes you’ve picked out here. I thoroughly enjoyed the exploration of the mother daughter relationship in this novel, as well as the glimpse onto the theatrical world.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Ali. I’m glad I read this as I felt I needed to give Enright another chance after my false start with The Forgotten Waltz. (I seem to recall us having similar experiences with that novel – admiring the writing but not feeling particularly invested in any of the characters. That happens sometimes, I guess.) Anyway, despite my reservations about some of the Norah’s reflections on her own life, I found Actress so much more absorbing than TFW. Plus, as I was saying to Karen above, the theatrical setting and era were right up my street.

      Reply
  6. Jane

    This does sound good, the time and setting are wonderful – I love her just ’emoting in the light’ and mothers and daughters are always ripe for discussion! I read The Green Road last year and while I enjoyed it I felt it could have been a little bit more, the sounds like it is (if you know what I mean?)

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s a great image, isn’t it? Katherine emoting in the light. In fact, it’s a very quotable novel all round. I had more quotes than I knew what to do with in the end, such was the quality of Enright’s prose.

      Reply
  7. BookerTalk

    I loved this book too. The mother-daughter relationship was so well explored showing both the frustration and exhilarations of living with a ‘star’. I’d only read The Gathering by Enright before but this book reinforced to me that she’s terrific at capturing relationships

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, you’re right. She catches that balance very well, and it’s there right from the start in the dreamlike sequence of recollections from Norah’s birthday party. I’m glad I picked this one up.

      Reply
  8. Pingback: A-Z Index of Book Reviews (listed by author) | JacquiWine's Journal

  9. buriedinprint

    Ohhhh, my, what a lovely introduction to a woman’s forty-fifth year in that quotation. I feel as though I can picture her perfectly, encapsulated in those few phrases. I’ve read three of Enright’s books and will, at some point, enjoy this one too. (I thought The Forgotten Waltz was beautifully done. My post is here if you’re curious as to why. It’s been years now.) I’ve just skimmed the middle parts of your review so that I don’t catch too much of the story, but have seen enough to feel as though what I’ve admired in her work in the past is evident in abundance here. Thanks for encouraging me to move in its direction sooner rather than later.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s interesting to hear that you can picture Katherine just by reading a few of the passages in this review. She’s a very ‘visual’ character, if that makes sense – not just her physical appearance, but her movements and behaviours too. Like you, I formed quite a distinct image of Katherine in my mind, but I couldn’t say the same for Norah. Somewhat inevitably, the strength of Katherine’s presence puts Norah in the the shade; but even so, she seemed rather fuzzy or unclear to me, to the point where I couldn’t quite get a handle on her…

      Thanks for the link to your post on The Forgotten Waltz. I didn’t get on with that book particularly well (my problem, no doubt), so I’ll be interested to see what you liked about it. :)

      Reply
  10. moirar2

    You make this sound very tempting. As you and others say above, I admire rather than love her: I find her too cheerless. But this does sound good. It is being serialized on R4 at the moment and I keep hearing snatches of it… Great review, really gave me a feel for the book.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Cool. I’m really glad it’s given you a decent feel for the novel. She’s not everyone’s cup of tea, for sure, and I think ‘cheerless’ is as good a way as any of expressing it. There’s something a bit austere or distancing about some of her writing. I felt that with The Forgotten Waltz, the only other Enright I’ve read. That said, I’m pleased I gave her another shot as the insights into Katherine were beautifully judged.

      Reply

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