Ruth Scurr

A dark emerald set in the Irish laureate’s fictional tiara: Actress, by Anne Enright, reviewed

Enright has been rehearsing this novel for many years — a portrait of a matriarch that is multi-faceted but completely lucid

Actress is the novel Anne Enright has been rehearsing since her first collection of stories, The Portable Virgin (1991). It is a perfect jewel of a book, a dark emerald set in the Irish laureate’s fictional tiara, alongside her Man Booker Prize winner The Gathering (2007) and The Green Road (2015). Its brilliance is complex and multifaceted, but completely lucid. Like its predecessors, it is a portrait of a matriarch.

Norah, the novelist daughter of an invented Irish theatre legend, Katherine O’Dell, sets out to tell the story of her mother’s life as she approaches her own 59th birthday. She is acutely aware that she is about to have one birthday more than the actress managed: ‘I would spin beyond her, out into unchartered space. I was about to become older than my own mother.’

No one is named Norah accidently in a novel set in Dublin. Norah Barnacle, James Joyce’s wife and muse, is embedded forever in the literary life of Dublin and Dubliners. Enright’s Norah is a writer in her own right. She wields her pen reflectively, sometimes defensively, and only feels entirely safe on the page. As Norah reconstructs Katherine O’Dell’s life, from memories and old photographs, she describes her own sexual awakening and love affairs, evoking two generations of Irish women’s experiences.

Norah knows that her mother was not really Irish. She was born Katherine FitzMaurice in 1928 in Herne Hill, London. Her parents were ‘strolling players’. The family moved to Dublin in 1939 to wait out the war, and Katherine grew up backstage until a friend of her father’s spotted her prodigious talent. She made it to Broadway in 1948, dyed her hair auburn, wore only green clothes, allowed an apostrophe to be inserted into her mother’s maiden name Odell, and became an iconic Irish actress, because in America ‘you can be anything you want to be’.

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