Some years ago I had read Anne Enright’s The Forgotten Waltz and was quite bowled over by it. The premise of the book was a theme done to death a countless times – the examination of an extra-marital affair. But Enright with her smart and spiky writing transformed it into something special. Thus, the release of her new novel Actress made me quite eager to savour her writing once more.
In Actress, our narrator is Norah FitzMaurice, now a middle-aged woman, and a writer who has been married for many years with kids. When the novel opens, her mother Katherine O’Dell – the famous actress – has been dead for some years and Norah begins to reminisce about their relationship, her ascent as a movie star, followed by her descent into madness.
In a way Norah is writing about her mother, a fictionalized biography if you will, and it is addressed to her husband, the ‘you’ in the narrative.
The first chapter begins with a snapshot of Katherine and ends with her shooting a well-known producer Boyd O’ Neil in the leg after which she is committed to an asylum.
People ask me, ‘What was she like?’ and I try to figure out if they mean as a normal person: what was she like as a mother, or what she was like an actress – we did not use the word star. Mostly though, they mean what was she like before she went crazy, as their own mother might turn overnight, like a bottle of milk left out of the fridge. Or they might, themselves, be secretly askew.
Gradually in the subsequent chapters, Katherine’s personality and life is revealed to us in layers.
Katherine is attracted to the stage at a young very age influenced by her father who is a small time actor at the time. Katherine, however, is destined for bigger things. These are days just after the war and she rises to stardom in Ireland led by her stellar performance as a nurse in a war movie that enamours audiences. Thereafter, a stint in Hollywood and all the trappings of glamour follow. It means that Katherine’s home is often frequented by men and admirers, which carries on even when her daughter is born.
Katherine does not reveal the identity of Norah’s dad, and Norah often wonders why although she imagines her father to be some sort of a hero.
I woke up one spring morning with a sudden urge to discover my DNA before I tried to pass it along. This was the missing thing. This was the rope I needed to haul my baby out of the universe and into my body. I needed to find out who I ‘was’.
Katherine, meanwhile, finds herself pandering to the men in the industry for quality roles and this in many ways gradually begins to take a toll on her mental health. For Norah, her mother’s fame and company of men bring another set of problems – unwelcome sexual advances that Norah has to grapple with.
But the book is not all about Katherine. We learn something of Norah’s life as well – the revolution in Dublin in the 70s, her own sexual awakening and her subsequent marriage. Norah goes on to build a life different from Katherine’s. In a way, she opts for a more conventional life centred around marriage and motherhood in stark contrast to Katherine’s bohemian existence.
While Katherine does enjoy the sweet fruits of success, it does not last long – a bitter truth that she struggles to accept. Actress, then, is a beautifully written novel that explores fame and the price one has to pay for it.
The nuances of the connection between Katherine and Norah is sensitively evoked – despite many challenges, mother and daughter share a deep bond.
Among the images of my mother that exist online is a black-and-white photograph of me, watching her from the wings. I am four or five years of age and sitting on a stool, in a little matinee coat and a bowl haircut. Beyond me, Katherine O’Dell performs to the unseen crowd. She is dressed in a glittering dark gown, you can not see the edges of her or the shape her figure makes, just the slice of cheekbone, the line of her chin. Her hands are uplifted.
Enright does not give too much weight to plot, and she also chooses not to tell her story in a linear fashion. Rather, the book is a more like a meditation on a mother-daughter relationship and their contrasting personalities. As usual, Enright’s writing is smart and suffused with enough wisdom and perception to bring out something new in the tale.
Overall, the novel has a very reflective feel to it, which in a way makes sense. After all, the narrator is also an author because writing about her mother gives her the time to dwell on the past and try to understand her mother more deeply in a way that will enable her to convey it all in her book.
I have read two Enrights now – Actress and The Forgotten Waltz – the latter examined an extramarital affair against the backdrop of the financial crisis in Ireland. Although Actress was excellent, I still much preferred The Forgotten Waltz where Enright’s writing was simply brilliant.