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BOOK REVIEW

An unforgettable mother, a shared history of sexism, in ‘Actress’

In Anne Enright’s newest, a daughter confronts her mother’s story

Family ties have always been a central focus of Anne Enright’s probing, gorgeously written fiction, and her new novel examines two in eloquent detail: narrator Norah FitzMaurice’s fraught bond with her mother Katherine O’Dell, the eponymous actress; and Norah’s tense but enduring marriage to a man we know only as “you.” As in such previous Enright novels as “The Green Road” and her 2007 Booker Prize winner, “The Gathering,” the characters’ personal dramas unfold within a sharply observed social context. Ambition and desire are tangled up with sexism and male violence in “Actress,” as Norah’s account of her mother’s career mingles with her own memories of childhood and of coming of age in Ireland during “the Troubles,” a period of sexual as well as political unrest.

“People ask me, ‘What was she like?’” These are Norah’s first words to us, her readers, and they pose one of the novel’s defining questions, for Norah isn’t sure she truly knew this woman who was always performing. Indeed, did Katherine know herself? A marvelous description of her signature curtain call (too richly detailed, alas, to quote) suggests that when she wasn’t playing a part, Katherine “did not exist, almost.” The woman we first meet, in 1973 at Norah’s 21st birthday party, is 45 and, in the eyes of the world, “finished. Professionally, sexually. In those days, when a woman hit thirty she went home and shut the door.” Katherine’s refusal to accept this judgment leads in 1980 to her shooting a Dublin film producer in the foot; he is crippled and she gets committed to a mental institution.

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It takes time for Norah (and her readers) to make this connection, although she tells us about the shooting immediately after describing her birthday party, which introduces us to a predatory university professor whose significance will also become clear later. “Actress” progresses the way thought does, winding in and out of present and past on a journey towards understanding—or maybe just acceptance. Norah is prodded into this journey in middle age, a quarter-century after her mother’s death in 1986, by a visit from a graduate student writing a thesis intended to reclaim Katherine O’Dell “as an agent in the world…in all her radical subjectivity.” (Though the tone here is generally dark, Enright is bitingly funny about academic jargon and other forms of blather.)

Four hours later, Norah recalls, “you said I should write the damn book myself.” With those words, the second crucial relationship in Norah’s life is introduced, and her husband (“you”) enters the narrative as a thorny character whose suggestion was made, she notes, in a tone “of bottomless irritation, as though my failure to write the book was pretty much on par with my failure to stack the dishwasher…you were a martyr to my incompetence in this and other matters.” We never learn his name, but as Norah investigates her mother’s past—perhaps to shut him up?—we do learn that the condescension and exploitation Katherine experienced as a rising star in America in the late 1940s and early ‘50s were still part of the male arsenal when Norah was typing articles for the magazine her husband-to-be and his pals launched at university in the ‘70s. Nonetheless, they are still married, and Enright’s unflinching portrait of a couple that “never made up our minds about anything…except each other” is scrupulously developed and painfully moving.

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Katherine’s sojourn in America followed her youth on the road, the daughter of strolling players whose itinerant theatrical milieu is lovingly recreated by Enright. In 1948, she came to America, to be remade by her agent into the quintessential Irishwoman, hair dyed red and dressed always in green—until she put on a habit for the career-making role as a lovestruck nun that took her to Hollywood. And it was in America that she got pregnant. After moving back to Ireland with her baby, Katherine gave varying accounts of the father Norah never knew, beginning with the romantic tale of a loving artist killed in a car crash and ending with the bleak statement, “he does not have a name…. Doesn’t deserve one.” The posthumous revelation that buttresses this claim is so outré in some of its particulars that it’s barely credible, but it serves as a capstone to Enright’s stark depictions of sex as a power struggle in which men mostly have the upper hand.

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But not always: Enright is too discerning an artist to make blanket assertions about human nature or human behavior, and her characters are too vibrant to be neatly categorized. Norah and her husband are equally capable of cruelty and infidelity; Katherine has been wronged, but she is no cringing victim. The social forces that that shape these lives are important, but there is an equally important inner imperative at work: Norah’s effort to understand her mother’s life, entwined with her effort to understand her marriage. In the end she comes to the same conclusion about each: love is difficult and inexplicable, never to be entirely plumbed, and “enough to be getting on with.”

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Wendy Smith, a contributing editor at The American Scholar and Publishers Weekly, reviews books for The Washington Post and was a finalist for the 2018 National Book Critics Circle’s citation for excellence in reviewing.

ACTRESS

By Anne Enright

W. W. Norton, 264 pages, $26.95