Anne Enright

Jonathan Cape, £16.99

Review by Malcolm Forbes

Anne Enright’s finest novels are those which deal with family ties – the tight bonds, loose connections, tangled knots and kinks. Often one event will bring together scattered relatives. That event is either a catalyst for a trawl through a chequered family history or it is the climax from it.

In The Green Road (2015), Enright charts the separate journeys of members of the Madigan family then reunites them in Ireland for a fraught and final Christmas homecoming. In her 2007 Booker Prize-winner The Gathering, she assembles the Hegarty family in Dublin for a funeral and then has protagonist Veronica explore their past to come to terms with her brother’s suicide.

Holding the family, and indeed the novel, together in each of these books is a dominant matriarch. A strong mother also takes centre stage in Enright’s latest novel – figuratively and literally. Actress is the story of (fictitious) Irish theatre legend Katherine O’Dell. As with Enright’s previous novels, this one – her seventh – takes the form of a long backward glance, a biographical tour through the years. Unlike her past work, this offering features a decidedly stripped-back family – for the most part just a mother-and-daughter pairing. Fortunately, smaller scale doesn’t mean fewer rewards. This is another skilfully crafted, emotionally charged novel from an expert practitioner.

In the opening pages, Katherine’s daughter Norah introduces her mother by way of impressionistic thumbnail sketches and vital statistics. Katherine was an actress (“we did not used the word star”) of stage and screen who entertained and enraptured audiences on both sides of the Atlantic. Norah was her only child. At the end of a distinguished career, Katherine returned to Ireland and opened her doors until late to an ever-shifting ragtag bunch of drinking men. She died at the age of 58, but not before going off the rails and ending up in an asylum for shooting a film producer in the foot.

Norah is now 58, soon to become older than her mother, to “spin out beyond her”. Like her creator, she is a novelist who has swapped Dublin for the “morning town” of Bray in County Wicklow. One day she receives a visit from an inquisitive student who has plans to “de-iconise” Katherine in her doctoral thesis. Rather than deliver neatly tailored answers to someone else’s probing questions, Norah follows her husband’s advice and decides to write about her mother herself.

To tell her tale, and paint an accurate portrait of a woman who was “an artist, a rebel and a romantic”, Norah makes trips, reads news articles and goes through “personal debris”. Above all, though, she sifts her memories and replays her mother’s stories. We hear of Katherine’s debut, aged 10, at a London theatre, along with her formative training in country halls in Ireland, either watching her actor parents from the wings or helping out onstage. Her West End big break comes after the war, and soon Broadway beckons, and, on the back of that, Hollywood.

When films prove unsuccessful and offers fail to materialise, Katherine refuses to give up the ghost and instead ekes out a living in fringe productions. In the 1970s she decamps to Dublin where she assumes and embraces her last role, offstage and at home, as “Prospera in a tempest of drink and illusion.”

Enright’s depiction of Katherine’s final-act decline is poignantly done. Equally impressive is her vivid rendering and incisive examination of the acting world – by turns convivial and cut-throat. There is insight on technique, such as the painful process of coming out of character: “It was such a long journey back to the real world.” It is a different story at Kathleen’s Dublin home, which is furnished from the city’s stages: “You were always sitting in character,” Norah explains, “you were just not sure which one.”

There is energising light as Katherine steals scenes, makes her name, and keeps her cool while playing the fame-game. But offsetting those stretches of happiness are bouts of soul-destroying darkness. Film studios exert ruthless authority over her private life. A traumatic experience at the start of her career casts a long shadow. And then there is that destabilising descent into madness: a cruel end to an eventful life.

But the novel isn’t solely about Katherine. With great subtlety, Enright allows elements of Norah’s story to overlap. Mother and daughter come up against manipulative men and each has their personal trauma. Only one is undone by it.

In The Gathering, the narrator tells us that “Some days I don’t remember my mother. I look at her photograph and she escapes me.” In Actress, Katherine is hauntingly present and vibrantly real for both daughter and reader. Enright has given us another first-rate performance.