Actress by Anne Enright
Published by Jonathan Cape, 2020
My rating: ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
In Actress’ opening pages, our narrator, Norah, tells us that her mother, renowned Irish actress Katherine O’Dell, suffered a very public fall from grace, which culminated in her shooting a film producer, being institutionalised, and dying whilst only in her 50s. Despite this bold and shocking setup, the rest of the novel is surprisingly gentle, as Norah attempts to make sense of the fraught relationship she and her mother shared, and to understand what pushed Katherine to such a tragic end.
Enright’s prose is gorgeous. The complicated blend of reverence and frustration that Norah feels towards her mother is captured perfectly in a tone that is equal turns warm and melancholic. The timeline is very much non-linear but never difficult to follow, and it feels reflective of the way memories flow in and out of focus.
I will say, however, that the book did occasionally drift off on tangents that didn’t add anything for me. The narrative is always at its strongest when it homes in on the complex dynamic between Katherine and Norah, and I felt it lost steam whenever the focus shifted to a largely extraneous character for often long stretches of time. The use of second-person (addressed to Norah’s husband) also felt unnecessary. At first, I thought Enright was going to explore the idea that it sometimes takes describing events to a third party to see them clearly, or that women’s stories are often relayed in relation to a man, but neither idea came to fruition, leaving me to wonder why she bothered with this strange framing device. It also leads to several moments where Norah is describing conversations and events that he was present for (à la, “You said this, then you did that,”) which feels clumsy; why would he need his own life recounted in such intimate detail?
There end my complaints, however, as I really enjoyed the time I spent with this book, and I think it was crafted with real skill and emotional depth. Norah and Katherine are fantastically well-realised characters. Through their experiences, we see how flawed and painfully human they both are. Enright explores the unique blend of love and rivalry that can exist between mothers and daughters, highlighting the jealousies and small betrayals that push the characters apart, and the fierce love that pulls them back together.
The author also turns a critical eye towards fickle Hollywood culture, with particular attention given to the intense pressure levied at women to maintain their youth and beauty, and the skewed balance of power when it comes to gender. It seems appropriate to quote the great Carrie Fisher here (not only did she and her mother Debbie Reynolds share a different but equally fascinating bond within the public eye, but the two are pictured together on the UK cover, as shown above): “Celebrity is just obscurity biding its time.” This is one of the novel’s core themes, and though Norah knows it to be true, there is great pathos in watching Katherine’s stubborn refusal to accept her ever-dwindling fame, and the increasingly few opportunities afforded to her as she ages.
The book is also set against the backdrop of The Troubles. This allows Enright to show just how difficult it was for women to exist within the world in general – when violence was a constant looming threat – and to introduce further tension to the narrative, with Norah and Katherine not always falling on the same side of the political divide.
Ultimately, however, this is a love letter from Norah to Katherine, which Enright uses to dissect the concept of female inheritance in several forms. For all her lauded film and stage work, it is arguable that Katherine’s greatest performance was that of wellness and functionality, when inside her mind was being fractured piece by piece; that the most important role Norah will ever take on is that of a daughter willing to forgive.
I would be thrilled to see this nuanced, heartfelt offering advance to the Women’s Prize for Fiction shortlist. These characters will stay with me for quite some time, and I will definitely be picking up more of Enright’s work.
You can pick up a copy of Actress from Book Depository by clicking here.
WOMEN’S PRIZE 2020 REVIEWS SO FAR:
1. Girl, Woman, Other | 2. Hamnet | 3. Fleishman Is in Trouble | 4. Girl | 5. A Thousand Ships | 6. Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line | 7. Dominicana | 8. The Most Fun We Ever Had | 9. Weather | 10. How We Disappeared | 11. Red at the Bone | 12. Nightingale Point | 13. The Dutch House