Actress by Anne Enright is a beautifully conjured portrait of the life of Katherine O’Dell, fictional star of the stage and screen, as told by her daughter Norah. As Norah is coming to terms with the more difficult later years of her mother’s life, and is approached by a student looking to tell Katherine’s story from a new perspective, Norah delves back to her mother’s beginnings and takes us on an intimate behind-the-scenes journey of her life, trying to make more sense of what came to pass; from her bohemian life on the road in Ireland with a travelling theatre group, drawing us up to the height of stardom in London and post-war America, and bringing us crashing back down in her downward spiral back home in Ireland. Filled with sharp, often humorous but mostly poignant observations of her mother’s life, reflecting on how the actor’s lifestyle impacted their family unit and how her childhood impacted her own life later on, Norah’s tale is one of great wealth and breadth.
Enright’s writing style, at times lyrical, at times stark, vividly conjures both her main characters, and the worlds they live in. ‘The stage chose me, you know’, is a statement made by Katherine several times throughout the novel, and this sense of self-possession is present from an early stage. Enright builds a beautifully vivid portrait of Katherine; from the lively and humorous retelling of her start in the travelling theatre in Ireland, where she is portrayed as a sharp and witty woman from a young age; to her rising trajectory in London and America, where the high social and artistic circles take her under their wing as a thing of Irish interest. The world of theatre and film of the time are so vividly captured, both in the production end but also the social circles in down time. Enright draws us along in this building up of the legend; yet through it all, we get a sense that performance is a place for Katherine to lose herself, leave herself behind, creating a special kind of false intimacy with her public, interjected by an ever-widening invisible barrier. This delicate relationship with, and dependency on, her audience becomes a recurring theme throughout the novel; a defining part of her identity, dominated by this sense of performance, both in public and in private.
… I think there was a moment between acting the nun and acting the actress that my mother was herself. There was a slice of time between those two points where she was lost – when she did not exist, almost – and then she found herself, or was handed back to herself by the crowd.
Norah is a candid and self-reflective narrator, at once in awe of her mother and critical of her, referring to her at one point as ‘my muse and my difficulty.’ As is often the case, she considers how memories are, years later, recalled in a different light as she discovers new things about her mother, or about the people who were around her. In an industry replete with personas and an innate tendency towards performance, situations were perhaps not always what they may have seemed to young Norah at the time; also highlighting the issue in any story spanning a long time about how memory is subjective and so often fallible. From early on, Norah portrays how different she was to her mother in behaviour and demeanour; her mother, the actress, enjoying the limelight; Norah, who became a writer, more introverted, retiring and observant.
From the side, the stage shows its gaffer tape and the unpainted backs of things; the discovery of this makeshift reality was more magical to me than anything I saw while sitting out front.
If the real Katherine, and the truth of her relationships with the men around her, remain in many ways an enigma – Norah is often left surmising how Katherine may have felt about things or why she did certain things – Norah counters this with honest and raw reflections and analyses of her relationship with her husband, and the men in her life before him. Katherine and young Norah’s relationship does seem to have been one built on love and a natural co-dependence; and, yet, there was always a sense of detachment on Katherine’s part, of that invisible barrier, as if her mind might have been elsewhere. Norah’s relationship with her husband is more open, more honest – as if in response to these lost years of authentic communication. Norah’s narration addresses him directly in second person at times throughout the novel, emphasising this sense of authentic intimacy that was lacking in her own family life.
This novel’s take on the mother-daughter relationship is particularly interesting as an intimate, behind-the-scenes view of a person that so many people would have known and adored publicly. The particular, close bond they shared is juxtaposed with, and burdened by, Norah’s constant vying for her mother’s real undivided attention.
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 cheekbone, the line of her chin. Her hands are uplifted.
Watching her made me feel so lucky and so alone.
The theme of performance, and the blurry line for Katherine between being on and off stage, runs throughout the novel. The opening pages set the scene for Norah’s life living in the shadow of her mother’s stardom, emphasising how much Katherine and her daughter were on show. Reflecting back on her 21st birthday party, which became a photo opportunity for a magazine, she remembers, ‘my efforts, that night, undone a little by the sound of her in the kitchen, Being Well-Known…’. However, performances were not only in question when among groups of people; they also unfolded when the two of them were alone. Of picnics just the two of them in the park in front of their house, Norah recalls, ‘…her constant scene-setting made me uneasy, as did the blank facades to which we played. She did not need to pretend to be my mother, when she was my mother already.’
This is a difficult read in many ways but such is the power of fiction, allowing us to delve into the more complex and uncomfortable aspects of existence and human relationships. Despite the stardom Katherine achieved, and her apparent innate talent and professionalism, she experienced much of the downside of the industry; the sexism, the use-by date affecting women in particular, the fickleness of those around you when your star is no longer shining as brightly, and the effects such a pressure can have on mental well-being. Actress is a compelling and heartbreaking read; a story about the volatile world of professional acting and the pressures of stardom but, more importantly, about the relationships behind the curtains, and how we build our sense of identity. To hear the story from such an intimate point of view, to see Katherine’s rise to, and fall from, stardom from the point of view of her daughter, who both idolised her and was endlessly frustrated by her, makes it all the more poignant. I really enjoyed this novel, and love Enright’s writing style; I found this sweeping story, spanning decades and taking us through so many different stages of Katherine and Norah’s lives, completely captivating.
Actress was published by Jonathan Cape in 2020.
Anne Enright was born in Dublin, where she now lives and works. She has written two collections of stories, published together as Yesterday’s Weather, one book of non-fiction, Making Babies, and seven novels, including The Gathering, which won the 2007 Man Booker Prize, The Forgotten Waltz, which was awarded the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction, and The Green Road, which was the Bord Gáis Energy Novel of the Year and won the Kerry Group Irish Fiction Award. In 2015 she was appointed as the first Laureate for Irish Fiction, and in 2018 she received the Irish PEN Award for Outstanding Contribution to Irish Literature. Actress was longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2020.