Review: Actress by Anne Enright

Anne Enright’s latest novel Actress begins with a question: “What was she like?”. The she in question is Katherine O’Dell, famous actress of the stage and screen, an Irish icon and, most importantly, the mother of our narrator, Norah. It’s a question that sounds simple and it’s one that Norah is asked frequently enough to anticipate its patterns: she knows that whoever is asking will search her face for resemblances with “a growing wonder, as though recognizing an old flame after many years”. She knows that sometimes they want to know what Katherine was like as a mother, or as a “normal person […] in her slippers, eating toast and marmalade”. And she knows that usually they are asking what Katherine was like before her infamous mental breakdown, “as if their own mother might turn overnight, like a bottle of milk left out of the fridge”. But this deceptively simple question continually haunts the novel: what was she like? Not who was she, really? Or, what did you think of her? But what was she like? The phrasing here is important because Enright is, from the very offset of her novel, insinuating that we are remarkably satisfied with just that: what things are “like”, how things seem. And by doing that, she is setting us up for the questions that inevitably follow: if this is just how things seem, then when will we know how they really are? 

Of course, how things seem is the central conceit of theater and a concept that Enright, who has worked in theater and television, has addressed in her writing before. But Actress attempts to tackle these old questions at different angles and with a steadier hand than her earlier, rawer books. Katherine O’Dell, perhaps more deliberately than any other Enright character, has invested her entire existence in how things seem, whether it’s through a film or a theater production or the carefully curated backstory she gives to the press. It’s also a concept Norah must grapple with, as both a working novelist and the daughter of someone with a public persona, a history on display. Now an adult and married with children of her own, Norah is nudged into writing her own account of her mother’s life after an awkward interview with Holly Devane, a graduate student in the process of writing a book about Katherine O’Dell’s career. Holly’s visit leaves Norah feeling disgruntled and unfinished because, like so many people who ask what Katherine was like, Holly was not asking after the reality of her mother. Rather, she only wanted to confirm what she had already decided: “I realized,” Norah explains, “that “Katherine O’Dell” was, as ever, about her, “Holly Devane”, and more crucially about her refusal of the hereto-normative, whatever that was” (side note: Enright’s characterization of the contemporary graduate student is embarrassingly accurate, and indicative of the detailed ways she handles familiar figures, making them at once an archetype and fully formed). Later that night, after an argument with her husband leads to his exasperated suggestion that she write the book herself, Norah realizes she must write the book she “needed to write”, and starts to piece together the story of Katherine O’Dell from public records, old journalism, and of course, her own memories and family stories. 

Norah’s ability to inhabit these different narrative roles—memoirist, historian, novelist, daughter, mother, wife, child, and adult—is perhaps the novel’s greatest feat, even if her project is a flawed endeavor to begin with. Mothers, famous or not, are perpetually unknown to their daughters, and vice versa. But it’s an attempt that is not unfamiliar to long-term readers of Enright: her novels are constantly fascinated by families and the ways they tangle together and split apart. Her second novel What Are You Like? is a story of separated twins and lost identity (with a title that is an early echo of this novel’s big question). Later, she would write and win the Booker Prize for The Gathering, a jagged little novel that centers around a woman claiming her closest brother’s body and writing a record of the complicated ways their paths converged and split apart. In comparison to other Enright families, Katherine and Norah are relatively functional and deeply loving. There are several touching scenes about their unconventional relationship—for example, Norah’s memories of their time reading and playing in their basement, which she preferred to the park because Katherine’s “constant scene-setting made me uneasy […]. She did not need to pretend to be my mother when she was my mother already.” 

Still, Katherine and Norah’s schism is more of a hairline fracture, and seems remarkably run-of-the-mill, given the circumstances. Norah’s is not full of resentment towards her mother, not any more than the average child—she even remarks that her mother only seemed wrong to her in that way “all mothers are wrong”. Her goal is not to pull back the curtain and reveal some hidden, true story of Katherine O’Dell, the way her slimy grad student wanted. She is simply trying to address all those little half-truths, those loose ends that are bothersome in a story but fill up entire lives. She is trying, very hard, to see beyond what she was like and understand how she was. But, as the novel progresses and descriptions of Katherine’s private life pile up (starting with the lyrically precise descriptions of Norah’s childhood breakfasts, marked by the double exactness of Katherine’s movements and Norah’s memory of them), we begin to question along with Norah whether there is really a difference between them at all. As Norah herself declares, “Not just on screen or on the stage, but at the breakfast table also, my mother Katherine O’Dell was a star”.

Enright’s narrators are usually overly conscious of their inability to see events objectively, and Norah is no exception. Even as she visits places from her mother’s past, delves into archives, both public and private, she struggles to pinpoint what was truth and what was performance:  where Katherine O’Dell, famous actress ends and Katherine O’Dell, her mother begins. There is a moment early in the book where Norah looks at newspaper photographs of her 21st birthday. She describes the guests, mostly friends of her mothers, as “various Irish types”, fully dismissing them as background pantomimes in the performance that starred her mother. She remembers the photos were posed, deliberately styled to look candid. And yet, she still remarks that “The picture was such a fake, even at the time, but the years have made it somehow true.” Compare this to Veronica, the narrator of The Gathering, who, like Norah, has decided to write down her understanding of the past. Veronica is constantly bogged down by all she cannot know and much of her narration is speculation and guesses about events she could not have possibly witnessed (her grandmother as a nineteen-year-old, for example). But Norah does not have this same freedom to fabricate. Unlike Veronica, she is not attempting to create a definition of the past; an agreed-upon history of Katherine O’Dell has already been defined without her. What she is trying to do is distinguish within that public history and within her limited perspective of the past what is truth and what is performance. 

In this way, Actress is on more traditionally Enrightian ground than her last book, The Green Road, an expansive, third-person narrative that frequently switched focus between members of a large Irish family. Actress returns to a more meditative, meticulous tone, with those wonderful quirks of first-person narration that Enright captures so well. Enright has always had a talent for letting her narrators carry readers through their story the same way our brains carry on through our own memories: in patchy, seemingly detached bursts of imagery that never quite make narrative sense but manage to create a cohesive whole nonetheless. Perfect clarity is never what Enright is after; her game lies in simulating the experience of memory, of recreating a realistic relationship with the past, which, as we all know, never provides satisfactory closure. 

This is not to claim that Actress is all narrative technique and no plot. In fact, the reason why Norah’s narration works is because Enright understands the maneuvers our brains make in order to avoid certain areas of memories. This creates suspense for the reader, who cannot know all that Norah is avoiding, even though the vague outline of the story is given in the first couple of pages: that is, that late in her career, Katherine O’Dell shot her longtime friend, the producer Boyd O’Neill, was subsequently tried, found to be mentally unsound, and committed to a mental institution. We know what catastrophe we’re heading towards the second Norah starts narrating (her tone implying that we all know about Katherine’s crime and breakdown), but that short synopsis instantly opens up to meatier, more complicated questions about everything from Norah’s paternity, to the exact relationship between Katherine and Boyd, and even the nuances of Norah’s regular, unfamous marriage. The plot is far from incidental; it’s deliberate, detailed and revealed in subtle, sometimes startling ways. It’s no small accomplishment to have a story centered around a movie star going mad and keep the reader focused on the pithy details of earlobes and accents. But it’s these perfect details, often linked to the body, that turn what could be a soapy piece of fictional film trivia or a mere experiment in narrative form into a literally fleshy, fully realized novel. The bare-bones timeline of events is interesting, but what you remember are moments like Norah lying awake next to her husband and hearing him swallow, “a little glottal give-away [that he is awake] in the darkness”. Or the description of her mother’s birth, slipping between family lore and bodily memory, Norah’s own understanding of giving birth. Or even the earlier comparison of her mother to milk, curdling into crazy. It’s these images, and their associations to the plot that make the novel seem real, that function as memory and existence do.

There are many questions that Enright’s novel creates and picks apart: what it means to be Irish, what it means to be a woman, what it means to build a sense of self, what it means to have a body and a history and to have it all be perceived by others. But all of those questions lead back to the same idea of roles—the roles we perform for others, whether onstage or in real life, the roles we perform for ourselves when no one is looking, and the fine line between telling a story and telling a lie. The novel opens with the question, what was she like and, by the end of the book, one of Norah’s initial answers still seems to be the closest to the truth: “She was like what any of us are like: strangeness and contradictions, determined by the perceptions of others”. This could also be the exact way to describe Actress itself. On one hand, it seems to be a plotty, well-researched novel about the history of Irish theater, about women in film, about fame, about bad men and difficult love, about mothers and daughters decades ago and mothers and daughters now. But on the other hand, it is a crafty display of the strangeness of first-person narration. Norah’s voice is completely uninhibited, yet overly aware of its limitations; focused on its goal, but also flighty and human. A buoyant, delightfully flexible book, Actress at once fits comfortably in Enright’s canon, and seems to be answering old questions in new, unanticipated ways. If she snags a second Booker because of this book, I would hardly be surprised.

About the author

Becky Shirley is a writer from Oceanside, California. She is currently an MFA candidate in fiction at Columbia University.

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