Anne Enright’s seventh novel, Actress, is a joyous read from start to finish. For emotional insight and pitch-perfect characterisation it would be hard to beat this study of a mother-daughter relationship set in the fickle world of the stage and screen.
The actress is Katherine O’Dell, a stunning red haired woman with “a glorious voice”, who became the darling of Hollywood and the Irish stage. But her fairy tale rise to fame came with a price: her life was marred by loneliness; insecurity and predatory men. When the plum roles dried up, the pressure of trying to remain the limelight provoked a mental breakdown.
After Katherine’s death, her daughter Norah tries to make sense of her mother’s life, sifting fact from fiction. But how can you make sense of a woman whose career is devoted to persuading people she is inhabiting the skin of an entirely different person. Even Norah can’t be certain where Katherine O’Dell, the actress ends, and Katherine O’Dell mother begins.
Reality of Stardom
For Katherine can cry at will (from one or both eyes as the role demands). She can also switch on the actressy persona merely by a flick of her wrist, the set of her shoulders and a slight change in her voice. She was, says her daughter, a star “not just on screen or on the stage, but at the breakfast table also.”
So much of Kathleen’s life turns out to be concocted. She wasn’t even Irish, acquiring the accent on her agent’s recommendation as she took her career to America. She changed her name (transforming Odell into the more Irish sounding O’Dell) and turned her hair a more prominent shade of red. Hollywood studio bosses went further still, commanding her to marry her screen partner so he could hide his homosexuality.
The fictional construct also enveloped her daughter. Norah recalls how her twenty-first birthday party, with star-studded guest list, was a completely “staged” affair. The expensive gown she was given to wear “a swamp-green and sickish pink thing with tulle pompoms on a long tulle skirt” and the start-studded guest list were both part of the charade. But the masterstroke was her Katherine’s grand entrance, bearing the celebration cake and singing to her daughter.
Norah however feels no bitterness at the way she was used as a prop. A newspaper photograph of the party showed her gazing adoringly at her glamorous mother. It has, she reflects, been made true by the passage of years.
The picture adds to the lie that I am a poor copy of my mother, that she was timeless and I am not – the iconic gives birth to the merely human. But that was not how it was between us. That is not how we felt about ourselves.
Burning Question of Parenthood
As Norah tries to untangle her mother’s life, she is also telling the story of her own life. We learn of her boyfriends, the traumatic experience of an undesired sexual encounter and the comfort of her marriage. Her narrative is an attempt to unravel the biggest mystery of her life: who was her father? It’s one of the subjects about which Katherine never spoke, simply brushing the question aside every time it was raised. The father thus remains, for Norah a “ghost in my blood.”
Anne Enright brilliantly evokes the world of performing artists. The exhilaration when the lights are on and the ears ring with applause. But there is also the constant need for reassurance, if only from the five-year-old daughter watching from the wings, “that the performance was not a disaster.” And then the years in the wasteland when she’s too old to play a young character, but too young to play an old woman.
Actress seeks to understand the essence of stardom and what makes one actor great and another so-so. For Norah, star quality and acting ability are not synonymous; stars she, comments, “are not actors – some of them, indeed, are very bad actors.” Stars in her view, are “born, not made”, they have a stillness that shines through in their best performances. It was a quality that Katherine exhibited every time she stepped out onto the stage i her younger days:
No matter how often she did it, there is no getting over that moment when she stepped out into the light. The play was waiting for her, just over that line. It was in the gestures and declamations , it was in the words as they rolled . Her real and destined self was right there, a space she could step into, or that stepped into her. Each time.
There are multiple strands to this novel, woven slickly together in a narrative that moves back, forward and back in time, Katherine’s story – and that of her daughter – is revealed in fragments through recall, questioning and examination. Such is the nature of memory that by the end we’re still left with some questions unresolved and some loose threads left dangling.
The Actress by Anne Enright: Endnotes
Anne Enright was born in Dublin in 1962, studied English and Philosophy at Trinity College, Dublin, and went on to study for an MA in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia.
Her early novels were well received (The Wig My Father Wore was shortlisted for the Irish Times/Aer Lingus Irish Literature Prize and What Are You Like? was shortlisted for The Whitbread Novel Award). It was The Gathering, her 2007 novel about a large family re-uniting for a funeral, that earned her an international following and cemented her reputation.
Actress , published by Jonathan Cape, has been longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2020.