Historical Fiction Literary Fiction

Actress – Anne Enright

11 April 2020
Actress Book Cover Actress
Anne Enright
W. W. Norton
March 3, 2020

From the Man Booker Prize-winner, a brilliant and moving novel about celebrity, sexual power, and a daughter's search to understand her mother's hidden truths.

Among the images of my mother that exist online is a black-and-white photograph of me, watching her from the wings. I am four or five years of age, and sitting on a stool, in a little matinee coat and a bowl haircut. Beyond me, Katherine O’Dell performs to the unseen crowd. She is dressed in a glittering dark gown, you can not see the edges of her, or the shape her figure makes, just the slice of her cheekbone, the line of her chin. Her hands are uplifted.

The actress of the title is Katherine O’Dell, and her story is told by her daughter, Norah. I avoided reviews of this novel, because I prefer a story to unroll as I read. I trusted the skills of Anne Enright to create a brilliant narrative of a life, and an evocative portrait not only of this mother and daughter relationship, but of Dublin, particularly Dublin of the 1970’s. The book jacket describes the Dublin of the time as shabby. On the very first page Norah reflects:
People ask me ‘What was she like?’ and I try to figure out if they mean as a normal person…. Mostly though, they mean what was she like before she went crazy…

Katherine O’Dell is fictional, but she immediately brought Maureen O’Hara to mind. O’Hara was a 1950’s Hollywood creation that embodied the American delusions about Ireland, a land of colleens and boreens, and all that malarkey that some of my fellow Americans swallow whole. O’Dell also reminded me of the tragic American actress Frances Farmer (look her up after you read Actress) who became a star in the 1940’s and died in 1970. Hollywood has perpetuated ethnic and racial stereotypes for decades. Women’s roles included the black “mammy”, the over-involved Jewish mother, the Italian “sexbomb”, and the feisty, red-headed and bull-headed Irish colleen. O’Dell became Hollywood’s Irish actress of the moment, but in Hollywood, there is seldom room for more than one of each “type”, and eventually, she was no longer considered for roles. Women in Hollywood have long worked under less favorable conditions than men. At the time, movie studios had complete control of their stars, who had to agree to exclusive contracts. O’Dell was not one for following the imposed strictures, which also had a negative impact on her career.

The novel in opens in the early 1970’s in the home of O’Dell, her daughter Norah, and housekeeper, Kitty, on Dartmouth Square, in Ranelagh. It is Norah’s twenty-first birthday, and the beginning of Katherine’s decline as an actress. Katherine is 45, and she is finding it increasingly difficult to get roles. Katherine has kept many things from her daughter: the name of Norah’s father, the story of her own upbringing, her romances and more. She’d had an unsuccessful marriage in her twenties, and never married again. She is close to some notorious figures, including IRA men. This seems to come out of Katherine’s romanticism, rather than any political conviction. Katherine succumbed to alcoholism, and eventually to mental illness. Norah, who long tried to help her mother, and Kitty, their faithful housekeeper, couldn’t save Katherine. In many stories with mothers like Katherine, the children grow up to have unsatisfactory lives. Fortunately, Norah escapes this fate and has a comfortable life.

Each reader will likely relate to different aspects of the story. For me, the Dublin of that time, and the personalities, fascinated me. It was a Dublin I experienced in my early twenties, when even Ranelagh was not particularly grand. It was a Dublin that was very much a small town, and not the world city it is now. I recall going to the Project Arts Centre in the rundown neighborhood of Temple Bar. One of the Chieftains, Derek Bell, the late harpist, was in the audience. While a few people said hello, most left him in peace. He was just another audience member. To some extent, this Dublin still exists. A friend recounted seeing Bono and family a few years ago at an outdoor café in Dalkey, where they were left in peace. In the 1970’s, Dublin was a city where no one flaunted wealth, and most Irish, even the middle class lived modest existences. It was a time where coffee and cake at Bewley’s was a treat, and there were very few decent restaurants. One exception was Gaj’s on Lower Baggot Street, run by Margaret Gaj, an exuberant and unabashedly leftist woman, born in Scotland of Irish parents. https://comeheretome.com/2016/12/02/f…
I knew her sons who lived in Boston, and was welcomed with open arms and a great meal on the house. This is the Dublin I miss.

This is an exquisitely written novel, with well-wrought characters that reflect a time, and a place. Despite O’Dell’s sad end, it is a beautiful story of a mother-daughter relationship. It was deservedly long listed for the 2020 Women’s Prize for Fiction. I am a reader who chooses the edition of a book depending on the cover, and I’ve learned I am not alone. The Jonathan Cape edition of the novel features a photograph like that described in the opening of this review. Highly recommended.

Peter Donnelly

Founder of The Reading Desk, supporting readers, authors, publishers and book industry. Top Reviewer on Amazon, Goodreads, and NetGalley peter@thereadingdesk.com

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