‘Actress’ by Anne Enright – Katherine O’Dell, The Star

 

‘Actress’ by Anne Enright   (2020) – 264 pages

At its beginning, it would be easy to mistake ‘Actress’ for Anne Enright’s actual memoir about her own mother; it has that veracity. The novel takes the form of a first-person memoir of the actress Katherine O’Dell by her daughter Norah. Katherine O’Dell is not the actress mother’s real name; she’s not even Irish, but English instead. Coming from a family of stage actors, young Katherine gains fame and fans on the stage and is swept off to Hollywood.

It happened instantly. Perhaps there is no other way. A star is born, not made, because stars are not actors – some of them, indeed, are very bad actors, at least that is what my mother used to say. Whatever a star has, they had it all along, and, at nineteen, Katherine O’Dell had it in spades. Offstage, you could hardly see her, onstage, you could not look away.”

Who is daughter Norah’s father? It is probably not the gay actor to whom Katherine O’Dell was married off to in a Hollywood-arranged ceremony when she was just 21. For a homosexual man, getting married was definitely the best cover there was at that time.

Of course Katherine had other lovers, but it is difficult for her daughter to figure out who they might be.

Later in her acting career Katherine faces the plight of many middle age actresses.

In 1975, Katherine O’Dell finally gave in. At the age of forty-seven, she moved from her unconvincing twenties to her mid-sixties – there was nothing for her to play in between.”

The novel ‘Actress’ is not entirely successful. Some of the problems result from the format as a daughter’s memoir. Most of the scenes of Katherine O’Dell as a young actress occurred before her daughter Norah was born, so Norah recalls them from a remote distance rather than up close, vivid, and personal.

Much of the second half of the novel is concerned with Norah herself, her love life, the Irish troubles of the 1970s, her marriage, etc. In fact Norah addresses some of her discourse to her husband which is a strange thing to do in a memoir of her mother. I found these asides by Norah to her husband to be clumsy, distracting and diverting from the remembrance of her mother. The story of her mother is sidelined to some extent.

Ultimately my assessment of a novel is usually based on the level of enthusiasm I have when I return to it after having put it down. ‘Actress’ kind of dragged for me in this regard especially in the second half.

 

Grade:   B-

 

 

6 responses to this post.

  1. I take your point about those asides to her husband – being forced to guess who it was was a bit of a strange device, unnecessary I thought. But otherwise I loved the novel.

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  2. I’ve just read something else like this: it’s called An Equal Silence, by Francesca Kay and it’s a novel written as if it’s a biography of an entirely fictional artist. The boundaries between fiction and NF keep shifting, don’t they?

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    • Hi Lisa,
      Yes, I’m trying to think of other famous novels that are written as either a biography or as a memoir or as an autobiography. None comes to mind now, but it seems like it would be a quite effective way to tell a story.

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  3. Totally agree with your take on this one, Tony. I was disappointed by this book. It felt self-indulgent and a bit showy to me and, like you say, seemed to lose its way about half-way through. I still think her novel The Forgotten Waltz is her finest novel.

    Liked by 1 person

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    • Hi Kim,
      Thank You, I was beginning to believe I was the only person in the world who wasn’t totally enamored with this novel.
      I forgot about ‘The Forgotten Waltz’. I may have read that novel too.

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