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.