The headline, the article, it all points to one thing, the actress and her overshadowed child. The picture adds to the lie that I am a poor copy of my mother, that she was timeless, and I am not—the iconic gives birth to the merely human. But that was not how it was between us. That is not how we felt about ourselves.
Anne Enright’s Actress reads swiftly and piercingly, and yet it also felt fleeting to me: I finished it without any sense that it had gone deep or would linger with me. There’s a lot that’s interesting and well told in this story of a glamorous but (or, the novel suggests, therefore) unstable mother and her daughter and their different but related struggles with her fame and its side-effects. The most powerful element of the novel for me was its exploration of the many ways women’s beauty, ambition, and vulnerability are exploited: to act, to perform, is to court admiration that the novel shows is always going to be a two-edged sword—to require and reward exposure that makes unwanted attention impossible to avoid. There is a lot of poignancy in the story of Katherine O’Dell, who puts on her beautiful public face and plays the part of an Irish heroine for an audience that is demanding, fickle, and judgmental. There’s corresponding pathos in her daughter Norah’s struggles to figure out who she can be and also, belatedly, to understand who her mother really was and how her own identity—she is born of a father Katherine refuses, for reasons we eventually learn, to acknowledge—embodies both the best and the worst of her mother’s fraught history.
Much as I was moved by both Katherine and Norah and engaged by the meticulously evoked historical and theatrical settings of the novel, though, I found the reading experience fragmented, the pieces of the novel difficult to integrate. Maybe if I reread it or thought harder about it I would understand why some of the bits and pieces are there, or why they are ordered in the novel as they are. I admit that right now I am a bit impatient with novelists who leave what feels like too much of that work up to me. I miss exposition, linearity, confidence that the novel as a form is robust enough to be “traditional” in these ways and still new. Actress is not by any means as conspicuously piecemeal as some recent novels, and it isn’t really minimalist, just condensed and somewhat episodic. Maybe it should be enough that it made me feel for the characters, and that Katherine especially seemed vivid enough to be more than a type—though I did feel at times that her pathos and melodrama and ‘madness’ (as her daughter characterizes it) verged on cliché. Is it the red hair (acquired to boost her ‘Irish’ identity) that meant I kept picturing her as Beth Harmon in The Queen’s Gambit? That, and her drinking and her flamboyance and her misery and her endless performance as a character in her own drama: that she lacks (or can’t rely on) her authentic self is part of Katherine’s tragedy, but it also made her poor company, and Norah is similarly, if more quietly, histrionic.
Having said all that, the story of their relationship is ultimately moving: it requires empathy and forgiveness to love a mother like that, and by the novel’s end Norah has found her way to a version of her mother’s life story that gives priority to her best efforts, especially her care for her daughter—uneven, imperfect, but genuine. Early on Norah comments, “Did I already know that she was crazy? Just the way all mothers are crazy to their daughters, all mothers are wrong.” Most mothers probably feel the truth and the sting of that remark; Actress tells a story about moving past that alienating judgment to forgiveness and love.