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Actress by Anne Enright: a writer performing at the peak of her powers

Book review: Actress does what novels so rarely do: it shows us both sides of everything, the performance and the reality

Author: Anne Enright
ISBN-13: 9781787332065
Publisher: Jonathan Cape
Guideline Price: £16.99

If you’re reaching for a stage metaphor to describe Anne Enright’s new novel, I suggest something involving screens, or trapdoors, or an illusionist’s mirrored boxes. It’s the only explanation for how Actress contains much more than seems possible for a 264-page novel.

The setting is family, the subject fame, and the two go at it like knives from the start. Our narrator Norah FitzMaurice is working out the story of her mother, Irish actress Katherine O’Dell, and telling it to us as she goes. Who, the story asks, pays the price of celebrity?

O’Dell’s fame went along the usual curving track: her father was an actor who gave her either theatre in her blood or the inability to be good for anything else; she went to America where she found a market with an appetite for red-headed Irish women and found herself famous; but she took the inevitable drift back down hard (“She was finished. Professionally, sexually. In those days, when a woman hit thirty she went home and shut the door”).

Her decline was sealed when she shot film producer Boyd O’Neill with “a prop gun that turned out to be a real gun”, was committed to a mental hospital, and died six years later, in 1986 at the age of 58. The shooting, which he survived longer than she did, provides a bit of electricity which Enright uses to drive the book forward, but this is not a plot-driven novel. Its lack of structure may be a bug or a feature but it adds to the sense that this is a portrait of a woman in full, a life irreducibly complex.


“My muse and my difficulty,” Norah calls O’Dell, and apart from the universal truth of that (“If it’s not one thing it’s your mother,” per Robin Williams), there’s a particular chaos to the actor’s lot that brings into ultra-sharp focus the difficulty of creating a stable life: the travel, the insecurity, the desire to use your child’s birthday party as a photo opportunity (“Don’t blow them out yet!”).

Fame is fun for a novelist to contemplate: they never quite get there themselves, even the famous ones like Enright, but they know what it means: for John Updike “celebrity is a mask that eats into the face” but a celebrity only exists in relation to other people. It is reflective, and confronts the observer with their own personality, often in the form of envy (“my mother made women, especially, difficult to themselves”).

And this was 20th century Ireland, where provincialism reigned and tall poppies were cut down enthusiastically, and where O’Dell had to conceal her effort and ambition with the refrain “the stage chose me, you know.”

The child of a star

But the people most affected by a performer’s fame are her family. Families, like actors, keep going despite mistakes, even if it’s only because there is no alternative. It’s hard for Norah to live up to her mother, who made unhappiness shine (“offstage, you could hardly see her, onstage you could not look away”), and who gives Norah only scant details on who her father might be. The juice on his identity is delivered to Norah by her mother in jolts like newspaper headlines spinning on to the screen.

Norah brings herself into the narrative piece by piece, and we slowly see that, although the price is high of being the child of a star, recovery is possible. One of the best sections in a book full of gravity-defying set pieces is an accelerated history of Norah’s relationship with her husband, the man to whom the book is addressed. (Perhaps we should give credit for this not to Enright but to Norah: she’s a novelist too.)

At times Actress reads like a performance in itself: look at what a writer at the heights can do. There is micro-brilliance in individual lines, like this description of a man putting on an IRA balaclava for a joke, when he was “instantly transformed into something terrifying and ancient. He looked around the table and laughed, his teeth filling the mean, burned-out mouth hole”.

Or there are the sustained sequences which pin the reader to the chair, like the slow death of O’Dell’s father, or a rape scene which is as meticulous in its presentation of the mind of the rapist (“he slapped my haunch, and said, ‘Now’”) as of the victim (“I didn’t want to make a thing of it”).

Most of all, Actress does what novels so rarely do: shows us both sides of everything, the performance and the reality, up close and distant, the division between the person we know and the person we see. As James Salter put it, “there are really two kinds of life. There is the one people believe you are living, and there is the other. It is this other which causes the trouble, this other we long to see”.

John Self

John Self is a contributor to The Irish Times