A dark emerald set in the Irish laureate’s fictional tiara: Actress, by Anne Enright, reviewed

15 February 2020

9:00 AM

15 February 2020

9:00 AM

Actress Anne Enright

Cape, pp.264, £16.99

Actress is the novel Anne Enright has been rehearsing since her first collection of stories, The Portable Virgin (1991). It is a perfect jewel of a book, a dark emerald set in the Irish laureate’s fictional tiara, alongside her Man Booker Prize winner The Gathering (2007) and The Green Road (2015). Its brilliance is complex and multifaceted, but completely lucid. Like its predecessors, it is a portrait of a matriarch.

Norah, the novelist daughter of an invented Irish theatre legend, Katherine O’Dell, sets out to tell the story of her mother’s life as she approaches her own 59th birthday. She is acutely aware that she is about to have one birthday more than the actress managed: ‘I would spin beyond her, out into unchartered space. I was about to become older than my own mother.’

No one is named Norah accidently in a novel set in Dublin. Norah Barnacle, James Joyce’s wife and muse, is embedded forever in the literary life of Dublin and Dubliners. Enright’s Norah is a writer in her own right. She wields her pen reflectively, sometimes defensively, and only feels entirely safe on the page. As Norah reconstructs Katherine O’Dell’s life, from memories and old photographs, she describes her own sexual awakening and love affairs, evoking two generations of Irish women’s experiences.

Norah knows that her mother was not really Irish. She was born Katherine FitzMaurice in 1928 in Herne Hill, London.  Her parents were ‘strolling players’. The family moved to Dublin in 1939 to wait out the war, and Katherine grew up backstage until a friend of her father’s spotted her prodigious talent. She made it to Broadway in 1948, dyed her hair auburn, wore only green clothes, allowed an apostrophe to be inserted into her mother’s maiden name Odell, and became an iconic Irish actress, because in America ‘you can be anything you want to be’.

Nothing is known for certain of Norah’s father, who is deemed unworthy even of a name. Norah remembers her childhood in her mother’s glamorous milieu back in Dublin’s Dartmouth Square. There were fans and sycophants. There was an academic, Duggan the Fucker, a lecturer in English literature, who hated fiction of all kinds — ‘And this would be fine if he lived in any other town, but in Dublin every fool had a novel on the go, so he was “a eunuch in the great harem of Irish literature”.’ There was a priest, Father Des, her mother’s spiritual advisor, doubling as her psychoanalyst, also as her lover: ‘He looked like a pocket version of God. His smile was entirely benign, his hair prematurely white. He was the future of the liberal Catholic Church.’ And there was the local doctor, ‘an absolutely monosyllabic man who refused to consider any illness below the waist’.

In her early twenties, Norah has sex several times with Duggan the Fucker, who is twice her age. When she tries to come to terms with what has happened and why she approaches the matter calmly:

I got up and walked back home very slowly, putting the right motives back in the right bodies. This is what Duggan did, this is what I did. This is what he wanted and knew, this is what I wanted. This is what I did not want. This is what I did not know. Also, the difference between what happens in your head and what happens in the room. The big difference.

But this measured and reasonable approach is not shared by Katherine, who goes mad, her eyes ‘fully green’ when she hears what has happened. She ends up on a psychiatric ward, after shooting a movie director in the foot. Tangled up in her madness is her own experience of rape and her protective maternal instincts.

Before the shooting, Katherine was writing a script about Dorcas Kelly, the Dublin madam accused of killing five male customers and burned at the stake in 1761. As mother and daughter pass the traffic lights where the stake once was, Katherine tells Norah that the prostitutes of Dublin rioted in Copper Alley when Dorcas Kelly was executed: ‘Perhaps they thought, my mother said, that she should have killed five more.’

Norah addresses her portrait of her mother to two ghostly characters, who remain offstage throughout the novel. The first is her husband of many years, with whom she has had a happy sex life and two, by now grown-up, children: ‘We never made up our minds about anything, I think. Except each other.’ The second is a young doctoral student, hoping to write a book about Katherine O’Dell as a great Irish feminist.  As kindly as she can, Norah wants to tell the younger woman that her mother was ‘a great piece of anguish, madness and sorrow’, and not actually Irish at all.

Actress is a deeply humane, often darkly funny novel about the exercise of power over sexually attractive women. The grim subject matter is illuminated by Enright’s acute sensitivity to language:

‘Beset’ is a good word for a man who ‘went and got himself shot’, as Dublin likes to phrase these things — the way you could get yourself robbed or, especially, raped.  We lived in the passive tense in those more difficult — certainly more tactful — times.

The novel revisits a question first raised in The Gathering: ‘Who am I to touch, to handle and discard, the stuff of a mother’s love?’ Enright proves, once again, her genius at doing exactly that.

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