Not Like “People” Magazine:  Anne Enright’s “Actress”

Sometimes I find it difficult to review new novels. I recommend so many that fall by the wayside.  If they are reissued years later, as they sometimes are, I feel vindicated.   But I ask myself two questions before I post a review:  did I really like the book?  And will it hold up for 10 years?  (I never know the answer to the latter.)

I am confident that Anne Enright’s new novel Actress is a winner for our time–to the point that it might win the Booker.  (She won the Booker Prize in 2007 for The Gathering.)   Actress is a dream of a novel, not only lucid and nimbly-written, but a page-turner.  It is that rare thing:  a literary novel that is great weekend reading.

It was an odd book for me to pick up.  I love movies but am uninterested in actors, because the press portrays them as mildly trashy and not very bright. When Huff Post publishes an article announcing that likable Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt smiled at each other at the SAG awards and touched each other’s hands, I was baffled.  I looked at the photos–I suppose that’s the point–but could see nothing but two exes joking with each other.  Is that romance?  Of course not.

There is none of that daffy caricature in Enright’s wonderfully sympathetic book.  Enright’s poetic prose and telling details shape a realistic situation and a likable actress. The narrator, Norah, a writer in her sixties, misses her mother, Katherine O’Dell, a  movie star and stage actress who died in early middle age when Norah was 28.  And their camaraderie was endearing.  In a charming scene, Norah describes the two of them sitting together smoking cigarettes, not saying much, but enjoying themselves, as Norah tries to behave like a grown-up woman, talking about her men.  One feels Katherine’s warmth and  devotion to Norah.   

There is nothing of Mommie Dearest, though occasionally Katherine is overly-dramatic, and in her mid-forties, when she is considered washed-up, she spends more and more time transforming herself with makeup and clothes before she dares to go out. And there is a scandal about Katherine’s death.  All I will say is that it involved madness, or possibly acting mad.  

Norah is a reasonably contented woman to whom little happens.  Her books sell, but she doesn’t think they are very good.  Although she declares that she loves her husband and has an idyllic marriage, she is bored and lonely enough to agree to an interview about Katherine by  a doctoral student writing a thesis.  Naturally, the student is not interested in who Katherine was:  she wants Katherine to be a dramatic feminist symbol.  Norah was expecting something different.

I did not know why I had let this girl into my house, suddenly. Here I was again, stuck in some other person’s curiosity, conned into it by my own loneliness or, in this case, by my mother’s loneliness – that gaping sense you get of the grave. She was so long dead. And I would give anything, even now, to bring her in from the cold.

And so Norah decides to write the story of her mother herself. She does research, travels, interviews old friends, and reads diaries and letters.  Katherine was adamantly Irish and supported the IRA, but never revealed to the press that she was born in England. And she was a child actor on the stage:  her parents were actors in a repertory company that toured Ireland.  Her whole life was about the theater (and, later. films).

Norah’s muted style makes her mother the star, and she stays in the background. Every detail is important, every image vivid. In the first chapter, which describes Norah’s twenty-first birthday party, all the important characters appear.  Norah and her friends stay in the corner, chatting about men, while Katherine plays the charming hostess.  After midnight Katherine’s friends arrive, “a shifting band of big, drinking men, all of them good company, some of them unknown.” 

Norah observes,

My mother’s crowd drifted up to the living room to be ignored by my own friends for being old. Or maybe all men were old in those days, with their baggy sports jackets and packets of fags, there was no difference between twenty-five and forty-five, everyone wore a tie.

(I do remember that old-man look.  And were they smoking pipes?) 

Both women suffer in their relationships with these “old” men, though they try to conceal it.  There is trauma, especially for Katherine.

Enright’s novel is dramatic and nearly perfect, as it reveals the power and tragic sadness of Katherine and Norah. This literary novel is fabulous.

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