My rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars
Genre: Literary Fiction
Published by Jonathan Cape, 2020
Katherine O’Dell is an Irish theater legend. As her daughter Norah retraces her mother’s celebrated career and bohemian life, she delves into long-kept secrets, both her mother’s and her own.
Katherine began her career on Ireland’s bus-and-truck circuit before making it to London’s West End, Broadway, and finally Hollywood. Every moment of her life is a star turn, with young Norah standing in the wings. But the mother-daughter romance cannot survive Katherine’s past or the world’s damage. With age, alcohol, and dimming stardom, her grip on reality grows fitful and, fueled by a proud and long-simmering rage, she commits a bizarre crime.
Her mother’s protector, Norah understands the destructive love that binds an actress to her audience, but also the strength that an actress takes from her art. Once the victim of a haunting crime herself, Norah eventually becomes a writer, wife, and mother, finding her way to her own hard-won joy. Actress is finally a book about the freedom we find in our work and in the love we make and keep.
I did not expect to love this as much as I did. I often struggle with historical fiction and I have tried to read Enright before but found her endlessly bleak – this book is the opposite of that. I found it clever and funny and absolutely incredibly well-written. The latter was probably to be expected – there is a reason Enright is one of the Great Writers of our time. I listened to the audiobook which she reads herself and this was such a genius thing to do – her narration is pitchperfect and works exceedingly well for the stream-of-consciousness feel of the book.
This book is, at its core, about a mother and daughter relationship, but it is also so much more: it is an impeccably structured love letter to human connection, it is a reckoning with sexism, it is a warm and kind and still wildly biting commentary on the arts and literature and I loved it so very much. (As is sometimes the case when I feel like a book is custom-made for me, this is more gush than review, please do bear with me.)
The book is told from Norah’s perspective as a winding inner monologue about her mother – famous theatre and movie actress Katherine O’Dell, told in parts to the narrator’s husband, in parts to a PhD student interested in “finding the woman behind the myth”. Enright makes the narrative style seem effortless but it is so impeccably done that I was swept along and got hit in the feelings at just the right moments. The prose and the structure are the obvious draw here – but I also loved the way in which the characters, especially Katherine and her daughter Norah are drawn. I found them real and believable and wonderfully flawed. The other characters are not always quite as sharp, but in a way this works for a narrator whose very identity is influenced so very much by her relationship to her mother.
While there were some plot developments that I did not completely loved, the overall reading experience was just too wonderful. Norah is such a brilliantly flawed character and spending time in her head was a delight for me.
Content warning: Rape, mental illness, death of a loved one
I am reading the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist this year. My current ranking is as follows:
- Actress by Anne Enright
- Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo (review)
- Weather by Jenny Offill (review)
- A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes (review)
Not planning on reading: The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel