Anne Enright has an unmistakable diction and a genius for arresting detail. Her novel, a daughter’s account of her once-famous actress mother’s life, is a many-sided thing: a description of Ireland in the Seventies and Eighties, a detective story told backwards and a story about the dissolution of a woman once famous, whose fame ebbs away. It’s a tender account of mother-daughter love and how protective it is at heart.
Bluntly, the daughter wants to find out who her father is and, in a way, who her mother is. The story begins with a tiresome feminist literary researcher who wants to reinterpret Katherine O’Dell, the dead mother, as a feminist — she once shot a man in the foot for stealing the plot of her play.
This is the daughter’s riposte, an account of her mother as she knew her and what she finds out about her. It’s got the Muriel Spark trick of revealing what’s going to happen in advance and the story flicks from past to present, from the mother’s life to the daughter’s. Once Katherine dies, the daughter goes in search of her mother’s real life, which she only half understood as a child.
It turns out that Katherine was something of a fiction of her own creation. Her secret was that she was born in Herne Hill and began life in London; it didn’t stop her presenting herself as a committed Republican. But what Actress makes clear is that a real actress can turn her life into art, even as she disintegrates as a woman in tandem with her career. She remains elusive even after death when her daughter does find out about the manner of her conception.
Actress is especially good in its evocation of an Ireland and a Dublin that is vanished, highly developed in civility and language, voracious for gossip, sociable, religious, hypocritical, louche, drunken and with a sensitivity to the nuances of speech.
“We lived in the passive tense in those more difficult, certainly more tactful, times. Embarrassment was everywhere. You could ‘get yourself’ murdered or ‘find yourself’ in dire straits. Many of my mother’s actor friends sometimes ‘found’ themselves, for example, behind with the rent.”
Enright, has a knack for identifying a female perspective such as the pique the daughter feels when she tracks down an elderly man to ask about her mother, only to find that his attention is distracted from her – the intelligent woman – by his nubile girlfriend.
It’s a good read in the sense of a story well told, but not in the sense that you really must find out what happens next; if you want a novel that’s compelling rather than elegiac, this isn’t it.
Actress by Anne Enright (Cape, £16.99), buy it here.