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Putting it on

Catherine Kelly

Actress, by Anne Enright, Jonathan Cape, 272 pp, €18, ISBN: 978-1787332072

If you watched TV in Ireland in the late 2000s, you may remember the scene: a young man tears up a piece of soil with bare, muddied hands, lifts it to his nose and inhales. “We’ll miss your cooking in Berlin,” his German partner tells the young man’s mother over the breakfast table, “but at least they have Kerrygold there too.” “Ah sure,” the mother replies, with a poignant glance at her son, “we export all our best stuff.” The ad is perhaps most memorable for its baffling final line, delivered via voiceover as the young man sits by his pregnant partner with a box of grass and soil on his lap: “He’ll be born in Germany, but his feet will touch Irish soil first.” The ad is from 2009, but aside from an updated destination, it could as well be 1979, so saturated is it with nostalgia for an earlier wave of Irish emigration.

The ad, and some of its earlier iterations – “who’s bringing the horse to France?” – seem to lurk in the background of Anne Enright’s most recent novel, Actress. After a long and feted career, the novel’s fictional star of stage and screen is reduced to taking part in a similar piece of patriotic kitsch. Assuming the role of the shawl-wrapped and beleaguered Irish mother, Katherine O’Dell watches a boat come in on a rough sea and murmurs, “Sure ’tis only butter.” To O’Dell’s horror, the ad’s tagline becomes a national favourite, marking her forever in the press as “Ireland’s best loved granny”. O’Dell is, as her daughter and the novel’s protagonist, Norah, puts it, “Irish for love” and “Irish for money” but – like Kerrygold’s Berlin-bound sod in a shoebox – this is going a bit far.

Enright has long been acknowledged as a master of the family novel, not least in her 2007 Booker Prize-winning The Gathering. In Actress, her sixth novel, Norah FitzMaurice narrates her mother’s life, from her early success on a postwar London stage to her Hollywood peak, to her gradual artistic and psychological decline. Before her death in the 1980s, O’Dell was responsible for a non-fatal shooting of a prominent (fictional) RTÉ producer, Boyd O’Neill. We learn the basic facts of the crime early in the novel: the perpetrator, the victim, the damage. But Enright delays other details and motives, weaving them through a complex and engrossing narrative of fame, family bonds and national identity. Of those themes, the latter may be the most fraught. Soon after the novel begins, Norah announces “with a real pang of betrayal” that her red-haired romantic rebel mother was born and raised in London.

Through O’Dell, the novel argues obliquely for the emptiness of birthplace and genetics as measures of identity. For the character-swapping Katherine O’Dell, all claims to identity have a theatrical ring, both intense and unreal. In the 1940s, she perfects a certain species of Hollywood Irish in a wildly successful film called Mulligan’s Holy War. As the luminous Sister Mary Felicitas, she faces the camera in her final scene and exclaims, “he has taken the moon with him and the sun too.” The New York audience, Norah tells us, “wept, jumped to their feet”. They may not recognise her final lines as the last verse of “Dónal Óg”, but they know the feeling. And yearning for nowhere in particular is a cinematic mood; it’s Greta Garbo in Queen Christina standing in the snow and reminding the king of Spain that “one can feel nostalgia for places one has never been”. Or for places one has never left. In Dublin, Norah recalls, her mother “could miss the old sod while standing in her own kitchen”. Following her arrest years later, she refuses to speak to gardaí in anything other than strings of gibberish that purport to be Irish. It is as though a life onstage has led her to believe that anything can be made real through sheer force of will.

Norah is not an actress, but she inherits something of her mother’s pliable identifications. “I wanted to know who I ‘was’,” she says when she is hit by a sudden urge to track down an absent father. The scare quotes mark her plan as a failure before it’s begun.

As a teenager, she recounts her mother’s theatrics with detached admiration. But then the 1960s end, the Troubles begin, and “Irish for money” is no longer quite so fun. “It was all very well singing rebel songs for nostalgic Irish Americans,” Norah remarks, “but there was nothing nostalgic about an orthopaedic ward in Belfast after a kneecapping or a bomb.” When Norah returns home with loyalist bombings ringing in her ears, O’Dell’s only remark is, “not us.” Norah can’t contain herself: “‘Us?’ Who did she think she was?” And then the unspeakable, “She wasn’t even Irish.” This experience separates Norah both from her mother and later from the younger generation. When she agrees to be interviewed by a postgraduate student for a dissertation on O’Dell, Norah silently marks the difference between them: the young woman’s feminism, her implied queerness, but most of all her distance from those years of ordinary violence. She notes coldly that this student “was not even interested in the IRA”.

Norah and Katherine are not the only characters in this novel, but they might as well be. Enright succeeds so brilliantly at creating a “star” with her own gravitational pull that I bristled slightly at the intrusions of other people. Throughout the novel, Norah addresses herself to her husband, weaving in memories of their romance as UCD students in the early 1970s and details of their present lives in their Wicklow home. This bond is less developed than her relationship with O’Dell, and frankly less interesting. This may be the point. Where O’Dell is overexposed melodrama, Norah’s husband is quiet, ordinary warmth. O’Dell’s fame comes with the illusion that the public “knows” her. “People loved her,” Norah says, “Strangers, I mean.” Far from that broad, false intimacy, Norah seems to be the only person who really knows her husband. The reader certainly doesn’t. Still, Enright is a pristine stylist and her evocations of married companionship are often moving. Indeed, no aspect of this novel would be so effective without Enright’s gift for a well-paced line. Her sentences are cool and careful but always alert to the pleasures of gossip. Enright never promises to show us the “real” Katherine O’Dell. Instead she gradually develops a character who is, both onstage and off, a passionate and very serious fake.

1/2/2020

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