Actress is a novel in the guise of a biography or perhaps a memoir. It is the story of Katherine O’Dell, famed Irish actress, sometime star of Broadway and Hollywood, as told by her daughter, Norah.
It begins with a long, beautifully meandering series of images as Norah attempts to capture the essence of her mother, the intersection between public and private, the intimate moments, and their shared place at the heart of the stylish parties in their Dublin home.
Then it shifts into the style of a conventional biography, beginning with Katherine’s grandparents. Norah visits her mother’s birthplace, which isn’t, it emerges, Ireland at all. The most Irish of Irish actresses is perhaps Katherine’s greatest creation. Norah looks for the origins of that myth, retracing her mother’s journey from touring Irish player to Hollywood and Broadway, before she returns to Ireland, the single mother of a baby girl.
More even than Katherine, Norah is elusive and fascinating. As she moves through her mother’s life story she is glimpsed at the margins, often seen but rarely present in the drama. There are only odd interruptions in the narration which hint at her present life and those around her.
Later, as she becomes an adult, Norah asserts herself, both in life and in her her account of her mother’s story. You sense that Norah is looking for herself as much as Katherine in the telling.
But who is she telling? There’s an old copywriting saw – ‘Who’s it from, who’s it to?’ This question of narration is artfully applied here. Who is the Norah who is telling this story? Daughter, reporter, biographer, critic? And who is she speaking to? There is a ‘you’ who appears from time to time in the narration. At first, it is ostensibly her husband, but it shifts throughout the book before returning to him. It is also the writers and researchers who contact Norah periodically, wanting stories to support their own theses. It is her fans, it is the unknowable future reader, the world.
The story brings in a number of fictional and real people from the period. It highlights the way artists are both of their time and place, and outside the norms, in its account of the tight-knit world of Irish media, arts and politics during Katherine’s life. Key events in Ireland’s recent history impinge on Katherine and Norah’s stories, from the aftermath of Bloody Sunday, to the bombing of Dublin and potential British involvement, to the paucity of contraception.
Norah the narrator seems incredibly clear-eyed about fame and its limitations, and this extends to her own memories, but of course there is that ambiguity there – is Norah mythologising her own past? Is Norah the character in the story as carefully crafted as Katherine O’Dell, Irish actress?
My one reservation about the book, which I’ve felt with all the Anne Enright novels I’ve read, is that I get to the end without any clear sense of resolution, of a story with an arc. There are two key elements in Actress – one around the theme of sexual violence, and another which defines the latter part of Katherine’s life – which should be dramatic but somehow feel like just more events. I also felt that the #MeToo element of the story felt a little too neat and not fully embedded in the novel.
Does that matter? Probably not. Enright’s prose is gorgeous, crackling with energy and dry wit. The sense of period and place are wonderful. The elusive but distinctive voice of Norah, the way she both debunks and re-energises the Irishness of the story, are wonderful.
What I particularly like about the mother-daughter relationship is that it defies the tropes of the Hollywood story. Norah’s description of her mother is neither a Mommie Dearest-style unmasking nor a hagiography. There is a sense of great affection between mother and daughter, a feeling of words that are never spoken, but at the same time a complicity, as if they recognise that the whole construct of fame is just an elaborate game which they both choose to play.
Then there is the tenderness with which Norah talks about her marriage and how love and passion can endure in a long-term relationship. Her husband, who is both barely present and central to the narrative, is the key to Norah’s sense of a life which is stable and calm and outwardly ordinary, but infused with true happiness and a profound connection which is quite different from the adoration that a fan feels for a star. Just as an author writes for everyone, no one and their first reader, you sense that her husband is the first listener at the heart of Norah’s life.
In Actress, Enright tells stories within stories about the complicated relationship between the performance that is life and the truth which is art.
I received a copy of Actress from the publisher via Netgalley.
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