At one point in this seventh novel by Anne Enright, the narrator tracks down a woman named Pleasance, who knew the narrator’s mother – the famous actress Katherine O’Dell – in her youth. Pleasance, who now has dementia but is still as sweet as her name, calls up ostensibly nostalgic stories from their showbiz days. “We knew a man who could swallow a goldfish and bring it back up still flapping,” she says, a trick she and Katherine used to think was marvellous. But the story gets darker. The man could swallow razor blades. It was awful to watch. “Poor boy,” she finishes, “he learned it in an institution, you know.”
The narrator, Norah, is recovering the story of her mother because she has been visited by a young academic-in-training who plans to write her doctoral thesis on Katherine’s career. Norah isn’t sure the scholar will tell the story well, since she seems to view it as a kind of lost feminist history, whereas Norah’s take is less cut and dried. Her partner of many years – a warm, dark presence in the book – suggests that Norah write about her mother’s life herself. Thus we get this novel, which ranges loosely through time, in the direction of an incident that ended Katherine’s career: she put a bullet in the foot of a powerful industry figure. His leg ended up being amputated just below the knee.
In some ways, the relationship between Katherine and Norah is disarmingly superficial. Katherine is good at being in restaurants with Norah and receiving her news: “The fact of a relationship, but never the truth of it. A selection of small successes to make her happy for her daughter. Some difficulties at work, so that she can sympathise.” But Norah is obsessed with her mother, who she notes disapproved of children appearing in film – they were “too real”, like dead bodies; they couldn’t be believed. No wonder Norah experiences her relationship with her mother as both a contest and a comfort.
While Actress has an expansive plot, it’s used like a giant broom, to sweep up the dates, locations and contexts of Katherine’s life and accumulate her details. Her character takes on texture and nuance, and then more texture and nuance. It may be that Katherine doesn’t suit the hero figure because she belongs to the late 20th century, an era that emerges in Enright’s telling as long and contradictory. Like the man who could put on a show of swallowing live goldfish, even its delightful events are liable to turn grim.
There isn’t much dialogue in this novel, and why should there be? Enright has perfect tone: whether she’s describing vivid parties in Dublin in the 1970s where Norah is observing the fabulous but sketchy people in her mother’s circle, or the clues that indicate someone’s awake when they’re next to you in a bed, she always writes the kind of phrases you want to drink. Norah (via Enright) is so casually erudite – she describes the first man she slept with as “my lovely deflorist” – that it’s almost cruel how much fun the author has with other people’s language, both invented and not. She has a particularly unforgiving eye for awkward quotations from movie and theatre critics, such as this line from The Spectator: “Musical comedy is addressed to the great midriff of the British people; it is par excellence the bourgeois art form.”
Enright’s good when she’s arch, and she’s brilliant when she writes on sex and the body. That skill, in this book, is used to pleasing, disturbing, complex effect. While you’re busy being enthralled by the very physical prose, that same prose moves you closer to unpleasant truths about sex, since both characters have histories in which the men in their lives have behaved in terrible, consequential ways.
Much of Norah’s thinking is prompted by the would-be scholar asking her about her mother’s “sexual style” (which are two words Norah comes back to – “these phrases burn into you slowly, I find”). She interrogates her mother’s restless, heightened love life – which includes torn-up letters, whispered phone calls and a decades-long secret romance – while arguing, “I am just not sure that her love affairs form the answer to any proper question.” While Norah describes her and her mother’s sex lives as “opposite”, Enright shows instead that each is complicated and complementary; our understandings of the two aren’t really opposite, but enmeshed.
The myth of Katherine O’Dell – which has not always been her name – is the topic that kicks off the story, and while Norah often unpacks this myth, sometimes she just conveys it. “It happened instantly,” she writes of Katherine becoming a star. “A star is born not made, because stars are not actors – some of them, indeed, are very bad actors, at least that is what my mother used to say.” It’s odd to see that rote idea delivered in this way, because so much of Enright’s storytelling invokes myth or even cliché without asking the reader to close their critical eye: 2007’s Booker Prize-winning The Gathering and 2015’s The Green Road both move critically and ambitiously through well-worn historical times and never stop injecting them with spiky, original life.
Scenes such as that one stand out because the rest is just so great: for instance, when Norah imagines what it was like for her mother to first take the stage, and to fearfully discover what acting – and she herself – could do. From side of stage, she watches the show “the way you watch an oncoming train, wondering if it will stop at a far platform – and suddenly you realise it is coming straight at you … She would have to step into it, a kind of collision in time. The play was alive. It was made of air, with rules of iron.” Most of the things Norah sees or imagines are in line with these scenes: cleanly described, deceptively intricate.
Jonathan Cape, 272pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 22, 2020 as "Anne Enright, Actress".
A free press is one you pay for. In the short term, the economic fallout from coronavirus has taken about a third of our revenue. We will survive this crisis, but we need the support of readers. Now is the time to subscribe.
Letters & Editorial