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Irish author Anne Enright in Toronto on May 27, 2011. Her latest novel is titled Actress.

Kevin Van Paassen / The Globe and Mail

  • Actress
  • Author: Anne Enright
  • Genre: Fiction
  • Publisher: McClelland & Stewart
  • Pages: 272

Handout

Surely one of the most enduring stereotypes about actresses is that they are necessarily competitive with, or jealous of, their daughters, especially when the latter come of age and the vampiric siphoning of beauty and talent (where applicable) begins in earnest. That this fails to happen in Irish author Anne Enright’s new novel, which is centred around an actress-daughter relationship, is just one of the many ways the Man Booker-winning author satisfyingly thwarts expectations in this brilliant follow-up to The Green Road.

Norah and her mother, the luminous star of stage and screen Katherine O’Dell, certainly have their differences, but in most essential ways they’re devoted to one another. And as a fatherless only child, it’s Norah who will eventually become prime witness to her mother’s fall from the heights of Hollywood fame into the depths of mental illness.

Bearing witness appears to be the aim of an adult Norah’s close-to-present-day narration. Norah is a novelist, and her husband (whom she refers to, rather startlingly, as “you” throughout the novel) has been bugging her to write a book about her long-dead mother, especially now that a young journalist (“I looked at this girl quite keenly … the fit, restless little body, the flourishing intelligence that ran so close to stupidity”) has been sniffing around, looking to do the same. Later, the journalist writes to Norah to declare Katherine O’Dell a “great Irish feminist.” “She was a great piece of anguish, madness and sorrow,” is Norah’s imagined reply. “And by the way, she was not Irish at all.”

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If Norah had a persistent sore spot with her mother, it was this: her quintessential Irishness was entirely manufactured. Née Odell in London to (loving) English thespians, Katherine became Irish during her Broadway debut, when an errant apostrophe serendipitously found its way into the programme. Next came the red dye job, the accent, the all-green wardrobe and voilà! It was, like so many things in her mother’s life, a performance, one Norah barely endured, especially in the seventies, when IRA-types began hanging out in her mother’s kitchen (“they had bad haircuts, and the narrow shoulder of men who had grown up poor”). When Katherine marched with republicans in Derry, only Norah knew the scarf she wore as a signal of class solidarity was Hermès.

One of Actress’s great delights is Norah’s recounting of Katherine’s (fictional) career, the gentle hilarity and believability of which sometimes conjures those SCTV commercials from the early eighties. Clearly enjoying herself, Enright nails, for instance, the mannered falseness of Katherine’s “lingering, luvvie curtain call” in her career-defining West End role as a feisty Irish nun working in a Normandy field hospital in A Prayer Before Morning: “that clearing of her gaze as though realising the audience had been there – oh my goodness! – all along.” (When the American film version of the play, Mulligan’s Holy War, is released, Pauline Kael will credit Katherine O’Dell’s “twinkle in the wimple” for making it “sing”.)

Decades later, Katherine’s futile attempts to stave off her career’s inevitable waning will include forays into experimental theatre (“a slow peeling of the self, hard to watch”) and TV commercials. Orson Welles was brought low by the ignominy of “We will serve no wine before its time,” Katherine O’Dell by “Sure, ’tis only butter.”

That there’s fun to be had here doesn’t stop Actress from being a novel of extraordinary emotional insight and empathy. Enright is also notably nuanced with her male characters. The men who contribute to Katherine’s undoing aren’t Harvey Weinstein types; they don’t even want sex from her. Her most toxic relationship is instead with Boyd O’Neill, a Gaelic-conversant film producer of minor stature who denies her a role in his “big Irish movie” for no reason other than the fleeting taste of power it gives him. Katherine’s studio-arranged “marriage” to her co-star at the age of 21, on the other hand, may be a sham – he’s gay, of course – but it’s not a trauma.

Their relationships with men are another source of contrast between mother and daughter: In her twenties, Norah is surprised to discover, given all the terrible reviews, how much she likes sex. (Not a little sadistically, she also finds enjoyment watching her swaggering suitors reduced to blubbering, pliable fools when exposed to her mother’s bright light.) Her marriage of thirty-plus years is a happy, even passionate one.

If there are still book clubs out there that aren’t just a cover for drinking wine, Actress would make an excellent pick – smart and deep, it’s ripe for endless discussion. And if it’s a simple sugar rush you’re after, then you’ll get that too, Enright having sprinkled sweet syntactical pleasures on virtually every page, as the previously quoted samples should demonstrate. In a career already lousy with high points, Actress is arguably her greatest performance.

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