Anne Enright’s seventh novel Actress is a richly absorbing treat. Her story begins in Dublin, in the Bohemian household of Katherine O’Dell and her daughter Norah. Katherine is the stunningly beautiful actress of the title, as seen by the constantly scrutinising eye of her daughter. In the course of this intricately woven tale, we see Norah grow up and Katherine slowly descend from the peak of public adoration to fall into a pit of mental illness and public shame. But when she was in her prime none could touch her.
She did not know how she did it. How she put one foot in front of each other, how she turned and spoke, what she said, what the other actors said in reply. Anything at all might have come out of her. But it was a triumph. Whatever it was. She could not remember what she had done, but it was perfect, apparently. It was just marvellous.
Katherine is an IRA supporter and some of the action takes place in the 1970’s with the car bombings in Dublin. Indeed, Katherine is something of an Irish icon. The fact is though, she was born in England. Her surname was originally FitzMaurice, Odell was her mother’s name which she took on her remove to the US and became O’Dell by a misprint in a cast list. Her canny manager persuaded her to dye her hair the rich autumn red that went with the name. She wasn’t happy. Didn’t people where she came from look down on gingers?
My mother 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 great insult. It would, unfortunately, be true.
This worked for her first films, and even later, when she was in her forties and overlooked for many roles, an advertisement for butter with her standing on a headland and wrapped in a shawl gazing at a ship with its golden cargo saying, “Sure, tis only butter” meant the whole country took her to their hearts once more.
Norah is an organised hard-working school student, not deterred from her studies by the parties her mother holds when she is at home. She is a close observer of her mother’s life and watches over her. Although she would really like to study chemistry, she ends up with a first- class degree in English and becomes a writer. Her five novels are quiet undramatic works with a solid readership. But it is when Holly Devane, with the fit restless little body, the flourishing intelligence that ran so close to stupidity comes to see her for information for her doctoral thesis about Norah’s mother that she realizes she is the one who must write Katherine’s story.
The story of her own coming to maturity is intertwined with the story of her mother’s rise and fall. She speaks of her mother’s early marriage to a gay friend, her time in New York and the lives of the three men who are both friends and enemies. It is the director Boyd O’Neill she shoots in the foot, Neill Duggan the alcoholic English professor who preys on her daughter and Father Des Folan the self-styled psychotherapist she confides in.
As the story goes on it becomes apparent that Norah has another question she wants answered. Who was her father? She has only ever known her mother as a parent, and asked her many times about her father, getting vague and conflicting replies. It could never be, he was killed in an accident or he was married to someone else. But it only at the end of her search she finds a notebook that reveals the shocking truth.
Norah makes a life for herself. Not a wonderful life but a satisfactorily human life with a husband and two children. She sees her mother through right to the end.
None of it was pleasant, so I was surprised by the gratitude I felt. The fact that I loved her was important, as I moped and soothed and sorted, but some people do this for strangers, and they do it well. When I tried to put a word on it, I settled, in some surprise, on ‘piety’. As I put cream on her legs, or lifted her out and on to the commode, or worse, I felt at peace.
Anne Enright at the top of her form.