Actress by Anne Enright

I love a first page. Page one of a book is like turning a corner in an art gallery and seeing the painting you’ve come all this way and spent all this money and used all this time to see. Enright on page one of Actress makes two things very clear about the first person narrator: she’s the daughter and she’s cynical.

And, yes, I have her eyes … indeed, whole paragraphs were penned about bog and field, when journalists looked into my mother’s eyes.

Not limpid pools, corn flowers, or the depth of her soul, but bog and field, which comes, fascinatingly enough, not at the end of the sentence but in the middle; I loved that, and had I not known anything about Anne Enright or her work and this book I’d picked at random from a bookshelf, that line alone would’ve demanded I buy it.
And then on page 7 this

…and I was already in love with you.

So it now appears that the daughter, Norah, is writing to someone. A lover, or seemingly, a past lover. A husband as it turns out.

However, I had to adjust my expectations; this is not a linear narrative, more like a cable-knit sloppy-joe of a book. Nameless and numberless chapters constructed as riffs on a memory, a character, an event with Norah sometimes daughter, sometimes omnipotent narrator. Character and place are important but not time; action and detail tumble over each other, Norah a child and then older than her mother would’ve been had she been alive. But anchoring everything is her mother, Katherine O’Dell, the famous Irish actress, but not her real name, and not Irish: she is her own self creation and from the moment she pops out of her mother, literally, on the most theatrical of sets: a staircase, to her most self-absorbed act, and the central event of the book, her shooting of Boyd O’Neill in the foot, she is a force.

Fundamentally it is a story of the interplay between stardom and domesticity told by Norah, a key player in both who is trying to understand how both came to make her the person she has turned out to be AND the truth about her mother.

One of the joys of Anne Enright’s writing is the writing itself. Here she describes her mother’s curtain call technique:

Her lingering, luvvie curtain call never changed – that clearing of her gaze as though realising the audience had been there – oh my goodness! – all along … It is all so surprising, Oh, there you are, a hand to the crowd. And, Yes! Here I am, the same hand at her breast.

(Although, her most memorable appearance, and the one that immortalised her, is not in a play or film but in a butter ad)

And here Norah describing one of her own sexual partners:

He had a way of swallowing a joke, with a little bobbing lift of his chin, as though agreeing with himself while tossing down a peanut.

The reader has all the freedom in the world to picture Enright’s characters in their size, clothes, and expressions but little descriptions of their eccentricities like this anchor them in your mind.

Detail has always been, and remains, the writer’s tool to elicit believability, but what works better is forgotten detail:

The ‘treatment’ [LSD] happened some time after the butter ad, apparently, but rack my brains though I might, I can not say it made any difference to her level of eccentricity at the time.

but then writing about not remembering something is detail nonetheless, just more effective.

This book is actually like a letter and like all letters it is in the 2nd person and it allows Enright to employ conversational aspects: asides, self-reflection, and pent up confessions. But it is also a novel and these peculiarities of letter writing could explain why the readers I’ve talked to said they didn’t like it or didn’t finish it, which is the same thing really, because they were expecting a story. But, although it isn’t written as a linear story, it is a story, and a satisfying one, you end up with, a bit like it’s a picture you end up with when you finish a jigsaw puzzle, you just don’t know what the story is while you’re reading it.

Enright’s last book The Green Road (2015) was her best thus far, although, surprisingly, it traced the same form and content of her Booker Prize winning novel, The Gathering (2007). Actress, is hewn with the same skills but it’s a very different creation, and I recommend those who didn’t finish it to try it again; just adjust your expectations.

Here is an interview with Enright talking about the creative process;

and here is an interview, back in March, hosted by Andrew O’Hagan for the London Review of Books about this work.

You can buy the book in various formats here.

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