“Immensely readable” – Actress by Anne Enright

Norah FitzMaurice is a novelist, a parent, and a wife – but to most people, she’s the only child of Katherine O’Dell: Hollywood starlet, darling of the stage, the Irish acting sensation who shot a colleague in the foot and ended her career with three years in a lunatic asylum (this was the mid-eighties, ahem). Actress is – sort of – Norah’s telling of her mother’s story, from her childhood in London and her youth touring theatres up and down Ireland, to her glory years in L.A., her brief marriage, her return to Ireland and her floundering struggle to win roles in middle-age, and, finally, her final into confusion and – perhaps – madness.

Spelled out this way, it sounds like a straight-up rags-to-riches-and-back-to-rags account, and that wouldn’t be particularly interesting. But this is Anne Enright, people: of course it’s a hell of a lot more layered than a quick summary might suggest. On one level, yes, this is Katherine’s story, and to that extent it’s a canny look at the various horrors of life as an actress in the mid-to-late twentieth century (Exhibit A: that time the studio married her off to her gay co-star) and also a poke at the claustrophobic high-life of the Dublin theatrical scene in the 1970s and 80s, where everyone knew everyone else, and they were all trying to shag your teenage daughter. And that is horribly entertaining, because it’s Enright: she’s sharp and wry and she can turn a phrase with the best of them (because she is the best of them. Exhibit B, Norah, in bed: ‘I heard you swallow – a little glottal give-away in the darkness.’). But beyond the telling of Katherine’s rise and fall, this is also, and perhaps primarily, Norah’s story; it’s about how she lives with, without, for and despite her mother, and about her complex relationship with her husband (and her boyfriends and her friends and her mother’s friends and her country and its politics and history), and her sporadic hunt for her unknown father and – really – how you might make your way in the world when everything tells you that your story isn’t the significant one. So it’s a book about identity and self-making: first Katherine makes herself up, and then Norah must do the same.

Style-wise, if you’ve read her before, you’ll know where you are: Anne Enright is a deceptively easy writer. It’s all such a smooth, quick, funny reading experience that you’re in it to the hips before you realise how much is actually going on here. She weaves together two main threads – Katherine’s story, more or less chronologically presented, and Norah’s, which hops from time to time, contextualising and clarifying Katherine’s while drawing us into Norah’s own childhood and adolescence. There’s a second-person address – the ‘you’ the narrative is purportedly addressing, who is in fact Norah’s husband – that recedes and then jumps up again, reminding us with a shock that the story Norah’s telling is at this partner’s bequest; the book, then, is also about their on-again, off-again relationship, and so it’s not only about who one might be, but also about who one choses to be for others; what we tell and do not tell, how much we fail to know each other. And Norah’s a novelist, remember, just as Katherine is an actress: how much of what we’re hearing is a story, a script, a mask? It’s also – because this is Enright – about buried traumas, about the legacies of Irish political (read: religious) life upon its (female) citizens, and, obviously, about family: the lies we tell our families and the lies they tell us and – it asks – whether any of that actually matters, because, finally, it’s all about love.

Any Cop?: Absolutely. A painful and funny and immensely readable book that will linger with you.

 

Valerie O’Riordan

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