In Enright’s drily humorous and spare prose, she brings to life the fictional actress, Katherine O’Dell, through the eyes of her daughter, Norah. Actress is an unusual literary novel, a work of pure fiction which reads as though its characters are pulled from history. The spirit of mid-20th century Ireland is compellingly written, and we see Katherine, who isn’t even Irish, with all her quirks and oddities, her brilliance, her addictive stage persona, the men in her life, her Hollywood connections, her affiliations with the IRA and anything else that signifies the Irish oppressing the British.
The novel hops about in a jumbled stream of consciousness, which could make it difficult to follow at times, but the narrative is so skilfully manipulated in Enright’s hands that we can easily work our way through, and it’s worth the effort. Sex and sexual identity are strong themes, and the descriptive passages leave little to the imagination. Norah never seems sure whether her mother is gay or straight, and her search for understanding her mother mirrors a search for the identity of her father. These things profoundly affect Norah’s relationships as she is equally pulled toward her famous mother yet pushed away. Katherine is often absent and, when home, indulges in flights of fancy which don’t explain much for her daughter. When asked a question about someone, her replies are almost monosyllabic, such as he’s good, so he is – struck through with that Irish brogue that can be heard in the words. Eventually Katherine devolves into madness from which she doesn’t recover, but Norah is there to the end.
This novel is a fictional memoir about love and, as the poignant cover photo indicates, observation from a distance. A beautiful dedication to the precious, yet often fraught relationship between mothers and daughters.