Actress by Anne Enright - review by Anthony Cummins

Anthony Cummins

Woman of Many Parts



Jonathan Cape 263pp £16.99 order from our bookshop

From her second novel, What Are You Like? (2000), about twin girls separated at birth in Dublin, up to 2007’s Booker-winning The Gathering, in which historical sexual abuse within an Irish family comes to light, Anne Enright’s fictions tended to turn on a buried secret, with a first-person narrator’s thoughts washing over a lifetime’s memories prior to an ugly disclosure. After The Forgotten Waltz (2011), about an adulterous anti-heroine who learns a hidden truth about her lover’s daughter, Enright changed formula for the inconclusive family saga The Green Road (2015). More like a story collection than an A-to-B novel, it followed a group of screwed-up siblings ahead of a Christmas reunion, with no clinching backstory.

Actress is a return to the norm. Set mostly in Ireland between the 1940s and 1980s, it centres on a fictional actress, Katherine O’Dell, whose tragic tale provides Enright with the ingredients for a characteristically hard-nosed exploration of errant women, bad men and Catholic hypocrisy. After achieving teenage fame in the postwar West End and landing a Hollywood role as a nun who unwittingly leads a Nazi-hunting GI to his doom in wartime France, Katherine seems destined for great things – until she returns to Dublin as a single mother, single mother in her twenties, her career on the slide. In her forties she's invited for audition to play sixty-somethings. A measure of artistic self-worth comes from performing Beckett in ‘cave complexes in Yugoslavia and Mallorca’. All the while, Katherine is working up a script aimed at a producer who once humiliated her at an audition for a big screen part, a knock-back that rankles down the decades and, after a clumsy attempt to force the issue, ultimately leads to her confinement in a psychiatric ward.All this comes to us through the voice of Katherine’s now middle-aged daughter, Norah, a novelist and mother to grown-up children. She tells us right away that when people ask what her mother, who has now been dead some twenty years, was like, ‘they mean what was she like before

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