Off the Shelf: Actress by Anne Enright

ACTRESS A NOVEL, By Anne Enright W.W. Norton & Company Inc. ISBN 9781324005629 2020 264 pp.
Review by Terry Kenneally

Actress, by Anne Enright, is the third book reviewed in this column by the highly acclaimed Irish novelist. The other two were The Forgotten Waltz and The Green Road. In 2015 she was named the inaugural Laureate for Irish Fiction.

A caveat to the reader of this book, you have to keep reminding yourself that the story is fictional. It opens with a question: “People ask me, “What was she like? “ and  try to figure out if they mean as a normal person: what was she like in her slippers, eating toast and marmalade, or what was she like as an actress – we did not use the term star.” 

Norah is the daughter of Katherine O’Dell, who died at the age of fifty-eight, the same age as her daughter, the story’s narrator, after a four-decade-long career, which began in the nineteen forties, and brought her to Broadway, to Hollywood and finally back to Dublin. Katherine was born into a theatrical family, which was part of touring companies often called roadshows or fit-ups, which went from town to town putting on sketches and plays.

Her ascendance, Norah insists, was instantaneous. “ A star is not made,” she aphorizes. “Whatever a star has, they had it all along.”
Norah and Katherine form a tragic mother-daughter pair – their tragedy heightened by their proximity to the stage. From the start the reader is told that Katherine’s drama will end in a mental institution, after a strange and salacious incident in which she shoots a well know producer in the foot.

The man she shoots is the “movie impresario” Boyd O’Neill; he survives though he never quite heals. Once she is found guilty and sent to an asylum, the real Katherine disappears completely, as if she never existed at all.

As the mother’s life is unraveling, Norah’s is taking shape. She marries, has two children and becomes the author of five books. Despite this apparent success, there is one secret Katherine refuses to divulge to her.

Norah is  never told who her father is. She knows that while Katherine was a star of a hit film in Hollywood, she became pregnant out of wedlock and was forced to retreat from the public eye. She gives birth to Norah in Brooklyn, then travels incognito with her daughter back to Ireland, where the rest of her career takes place on stage.

Norah never becomes a resentful victim of her mother’s refusal to divulge her father’s identity. Neither of them seems to have a great need of a father in the flesh.

The book succeeds as a good novel involving the theater, and although at the end it runs away with itself, the mother-daughter relationship ,which is the most fraught of all familial relationships, is its strength. I rate it a TOP SHELF read.

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