Book review: Actress, by Anne Enright

Anne EnrightAnne Enright
Anne Enright
Actress opens with a to-and-fro account of the narrator’s twenty-first birthday party in early Seventies Dublin. The focus however is on her mother, Katherine O’Dell, actress, singer of Irish songs and briefly, around 1950, a star in Hollywood, her only marriage to her stage and screen partner being made by command of studio bosses as was often the case then. (The husband was gay, and not daughter Norah’s father, though for much of her childhood she believed he was.) This party and the evocation of Dublin’s theatrical and cultural life long before prosperity changed the Republic and when it was still a city free of tourists, one in which everybody smoked and drank and talked the hind legs off donkeys, are so brilliantly and delightfully done that you may read entranced but fearing also that the author may not be able quite to keep it up.

It is also daring. Though the title and the first page of the novel make it clear that it is Katherine’s story – if also the story of the mother-daughter relationship as seen from Norah’s middle age when she is a married woman with grown-up children and is the author of five quite well-received novels – nevertheless we know from the start it’s not going to be a linear story but one which moves back and forward and back again, showing, examining, questioning. Moreover by page 17 we know more or less how Katherine’s life ended. The question is how she came to be where she was and how that bombshell so casually delivered was prepared.

Katherine was born into a family of strolling players, and took her mother’s name Odell – it was her American agent who inserted the apostrophe to make it more authentically Irish. “My mother,” Norah writes, “was a great fake. She was also an artist, a rebel and a romantic – so you could call her anything you like, but you could not call her English, that would be a great insult. It would also, unfortunately be true” – for she was born in London and spent her early childhood years there. “Nevertheless she made herself Irish until no one was more Irish than Katherine O’Dell with her red hair, plaid shawl, poetry and rebel songs.”

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There’s a delightful and comic account of her early teenage years with a theatrical company touring small towns and villages in the west and midlands of neutral Ireland during the war. Then comes success in cold and grubby post-war London, an excellent passage. This is followed by success on Broadway and, briefly, in Hollywood; a dull section because too familiar. Perhaps there really is nothing new to be said about mid-20th century Hollywood. Then we get the return to Ireland, where Katherine becomes a national treasure even as her career goes into decline.
Much of the novel is Norah’s story too, inevitably because her relations with her impossible, infuriating, much-loved mother are at the heart of the novel, but, though there are acute and entertaining pictures of student life (with predatory academics) and of Dublin when The Troubles in the North impinge on the Republic and Katherine displays herself on a protest line in Derry, much of what relates to Norah’s own life is less interesting and too wordy. In truth, Norah herself is not a very interesting character. So, to this extent anyway, the doubt whether Enright could maintain the delightful brilliance of her first chapter is justified. Interest sags whenever Katherine is off the stage.

Her story is made for tragedy, but the tragedy is never quite realized, and this for a good and admirable reason: that she never submits to it, never consents to defeat. She may be an absurd woman – a fake, as her daughter says – but she plays the part she has written for herself with bravado. No doubt in real life such a woman would be tiresome. On the page she is splendid. And there is this to be said for Norah: she sees her mother as she is but contrives to remain loyal, loving and admiring.

This is not a perfect novel, even, after its early brilliance, a somewhat disappointing one; nevertheless it is always interesting, and for the most part very enjoyable. Allan Massie

Actress, by Anne Enright, Jonathan Cape, 264pp, £16.99  

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