Actress by Anne Enright review – the spotlight of fame

Alexandra Harris

In Anne Enright’s seventh novel, the daughter of an iconic actor thinks back to her mother’s years of fame, distraction and difficulty, trying at the same time to work out aspects of her own history that have never been clear. For instance: who was her father, the man she imagined as a lost hero? Why could he never be named, this “ghost in [her] blood”? In her late 50s, with her own children grown up and gone from home, she assembles and studies memories of her lost mother.

After the superbly expansive major chord of The Green Road, with its large Irish family pulled back by centripetal force to the Lear-like matriarch’s kitchen kingdom, Actress feels a more meditative, elusive, exploratory book. It is a study of sexual power and hurt in the glamorous, oppressive worlds of Hollywood and Irish theatre in the 1960s and 70s, told from the perspective of the 2010s.

Norah, the daughter and narrator, is writing just before #MeToo, but she is thinking with acute intelligence about unspoken exploitations, about buried rage, its legacies and the possibility of change.

Enright is quick, knowing, enjoyably sharp as she sketches in the career of a romantic screen heroine. Katherine O’Dell’s defining film role was as a nursing sister in a field hospital, with a soldier dying in her lap. She did versions of penitence modelled on Grace Kelly and – consummate professional – she could cry out of one eye or two. Norah remembers seeing her mother’s face on the big screen, twenty feet high, a single tear the size of a chandelier. And she could hardly forget the butter advert on TV: O’Dell in a shawl on a western Irish headland, flame hair flying, storm-tossed rowers striving towards her with a golden cargo she will later spread thickly on soda bread by a turf fire. “Sure, ’tis only butter,” says the beloved actor, and the nation says it with her.

In contrast to such choreographed scenes of luscious melancholy, Enright’s novel works by circling and revisiting certain encounters, weighing them for meaning, taking account of numbness and aberrant feeling. Rather than the strong arcs of loss and resolution in a Hollywood plot, Actress makes room for siftings and digressions. Norah is a reluctant if expansive narrator, pushing herself to consider intractable things. She is already the author of five novels, in which, she says, there is not much sex or violence: people “just realise things and feel a little sad”. But the story “shouting out to be written” is that of her famous mother, who went crazy and shot an influential film producer in the foot.

Waiting in the wings: Enright captures the magic of theatre Photograph: luoman/Getty Images

“The whole world thought it was sort of funny.” It wouldn’t seem so funny now, or so entirely mad. The last few years have given us more understanding of why a professional woman might strike out against a world of harm.

Norah’s telling is prompted in part by a PhD student who is writing a thesis on Katherine O’Dell and turns up with theories about “sexual style”. What can Norah say when no theory seems adequate and her own knowledge is so incomplete? She is still possessively proud to be the person who knew her mother best. Even as a child, granting to a favoured friend the glimpse of a satin-cushioned bedroom, knowledge of Katherine was a gift to give carefully. Her famous mother: “mine to bestow or withhold”. With the inherited archive in boxes upstairs, she knows she has her own thesis to think out.

In Katherine’s big old Dublin kitchen, a cluster of men would hang around paying court, trading in charm and cleverness. All of them were predatory, according to Norah’s shrewd late-life account. “Even their lechery was over-styled.” There was the priest with “the kindly air I did not trust for being universally applied”. There was Niall Duggan, the lecturer who promised Norah first-class honours in exchange for her virginity. She got her first on merit but slept with him later anyway.

Norah goes back and back to this time with Duggan, working out how her desire was exploited and how much she minded. She sees, again, his body collapsing on top of her, “unloosed”; she feels again the “spikes of self-hatred”. It is very far from a movie romance. Casually she hazards a breathtaking comparison to the Irish way of giving you tea regardless of whether you’ve declined the offer. “You’ll take a cup of tea?” means you’re having the tea anyway. Norah says a clear “no” to Duggan without any expectation of its being heeded, then helps him with her underwear. “I felt as you might after a burglary,” she suggests. But what was taken, she thinks, was nothing much that mattered – as if the burglar had got the hi-fi and left the things she loved. It’s her mother, not herself, who feels that the really treasured thing has been unbearably stolen when her daughter sleeps with men.

Both mother and daughter are much haunted by the question of what is in their power to give, and what is stolen from them. Both need to articulate their own stories, but it’s no simple task. Katherine’s typewriter clatters on through “dead ends and countless drafts”. For her story to be rejected when she tries to make a gift of it proves disturbingly painful. Enright raises the question of who’s listening. O’Dell needs the crowd in the stalls to be with her when she acts, and reaches out for the reassurance of her watching daughter. Norah, too, needs someone to be there. Barely mentioned but written deep into the structure of the novel is Norah’s loving husband, the person she is talking to.

It sparkles with light, rapid, shrugging wit; cliches are skewered in seconds

There are leaps of joy in Actress, for all its darkness. It sparkles with light, rapid, shrugging wit; cliches are skewered in seconds, and thespian types are affectionately set in motion to carry on chatting in the margins. The magic of pre-war touring players, holding audiences rapt in country halls, is richly done. “It was all built out of cardboard, greasepaint and panic,” but the play was there waiting for young Katherine, “a space she could step into, or that stepped into her”. The older Katherine remains unmistakably a star, even while eating toast in the kitchen. Enright catches her winks and smiles, the flick of her wrist, her way of saying “marvellous” on the phone.

Memories of tender, uncoercive love shine out between the illness and confused attachments and violence. Here as elsewhere Enright writes with delight of intimacy and sexual adventure. Norah remembers her first time (“it was like being a plane all your life and not knowing you could fly”), and thinks with clear-eyed gratitude of her marriage. She still wonders at the “ardent business” of being alive.

What’s striking too is that the worst is set in the past. “We were all half-mad in those days,” Norah says, thinking of the early 1970s. What comes back to her from winter evenings in Dublin is the sound of women weeping and “men’s voices pushing against them in the darkness saying ‘Come on, Come on’.”

The atmosphere of extraordinary pressure and imperilled emotion that Enright evokes in this novel reaches beyond the mother-daughter pair, beyond the power struggles of actors and movie studios, out into the general Dublin night. And in trying to tell her story, Norah seems to shift that atmosphere a little. “Just my own hopefulness,” she offers in parting.

Actress is published by Jonathan Cape (RRP £16.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p over £15.