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Review: Actress, by Anne Enright


by Anne Enright | €16.99 | 9781787332065 | 272 pages | Jonathan Cape |20/02/2020

Anne Enright’s latest novel Actress explores some of her favourite subjects such as history, memory and truth; the issue that takes centre stage, however, is the nature of performance. The different roles people assume and the myth of identity are constantly interrogated as the novel charts the biography of the fictional famous actress Katherine O’Dell through the eyes of her daughter.

The fact that Katherine is in fact British by birth and established as Irish through a media misprint of her name is one of the first indicators of a story that will not be confined by straightforward ideas of identity. The early days of her career in America are defined by the commercial and contrived Irish image that her Hollywood studio insists upon. Katherine successfully plays the part of the quaint Irish actress with dyed red hair, and her complicated relationship with celebrity throughout the novel provides an excellent illustration of how easily a legend can become an outright lie.

The novel sees several different versions of Ireland performed: rural Ireland in the 1930s, middle-class Dublin and its artistic circles, and sectarian violence such as the bombing of Dublin in 1974. Towards the end of Katherine’s career, she imitates an old woman in a television commercial for butter, complete with a currach and melancholic music. Some of these depictions foster a warm sense of nostalgia; by the time we arrive at the old-Ireland-style advert for butter, however, there is a sense that Enright has been playing a gentle joke on her readers all along. She enjoys illustrating how easy it is to try on and discard different costumes, and deliberately leaves unanswered the question of what is really beneath the guise of nationality.

As well as jumping between different portrayals of Ireland, the novel also spans several other vivid settings: New York, LA, London and Italy provide brief backdrops in the narrator’s recounting and exploration of her mother’s life. This rapid movement between settings poses the risk of destabilising the action, but every era and location is sharply realised and quietly convincing. Enright makes these tours of different settings feel immersive and seem effortless, which is a testament to her well-established skills and deliberate style of writing.

Readers looking for the same style of story as some of her previous titles like The Gathering and The Green Road might find themselves frustrated with Actress. Although there are moments of drama throughout the book and suggestions of scandal in Katherine’s past, the novel is more focused on the presenting a sophisticated examination of the construction of identity. It certainly succeeds in doing so, and Enright also manages to interrogate some of her usual material such as the problematic nature of memory and the performance of sexuality. It’s clear when reading Actress that you are being guided by an author with a vast knowledge of modernist and contemporary writing. While you can appreciate the story on the surface, there is also a constant interrogation of complex ideas being performed in the background, and it’s the kind of book that is worthy of several careful readings.

There are plenty opportunities for high drama throughout Actress. Katherine’s mental breakdown, her complicated life and love affairs, and her daughter’s navigation of growing up in this complex social circle all offer more than enough material for tragedy and heroics. But this isn’t a novel that concerns itself with shock-value entertainment, and it pays surprisingly little attention to some of its most dramatic developments. Instead, it is a reflection on the tales we all like to tell and the different parts we play to protect ourselves.

Review by Joanne O’Sullivan

Actress published by Jonathan Cape, is out now.