Conor Halion reviews Anne Enright’s latest novel: Actress.
It has been roughly four years since I last read Anne Enright’s earlier novel, The Forgotten Waltz, as part of a module on contemporary Irish writing. Even after all this time however, The Forgotten Waltz’s powerful themes as well as Enright’s visceral mode of storytelling have remained fixed very firmly in my mind. Enright’s descriptive powers in particular are second to none, often describing scenes in such palpable detail as to make one feel as if they have been transported into the book itself. Actress, published in late February, tells the story of Katherine O’Dell, a fictional starlet of both the stage and silver screen, through the eyes of her daughter, Norah. This draws an immediate comparison with Carrie Fisher’s semi-autobiographical novel: Postcard’s from the Edge, which explored the relationship between Fisher and her mother, fellow actress Debbie Reynolds. It is almost an undisputed fact that actors and actresses lead turbulent lives of excess, experiencing the highest of highs and the absolute lowest of lows, when their meteoric rise to fame inevitably stalls and they come crashing down to earth. As such, one has come to expect a certain tone or direction when approaching the autobiography of an actor or actress, a tone of either condemnation or awe, with little middle ground. Thankfully, Enright cleverly sidesteps this pitfall by making O’Dell’s biographer her daughter, who remembers, and sometimes misremembers, her mother as a person, rather than as a character or a role. Enright also manages to weave Norah’s own story into that of her mother’s, a narrative technique which feels both completely natural and in another sense, ground-breaking. However, despite Enright’s attempts to establish O’Dell as a beloved starlet of Hollywood’s Golden Age, it is an effect that is never truly achieved. This is made all the more jarring when Enright attempts to place her fictional cast of characters alongside real life actors and actresses, something which feels incredibly artificial. Ultimately, we never really get a clear picture of just who exactly Katherine O’Dell is supposed to be, either as a woman, a mother, or an actress.