Anne Enright is a former winner of the Booker Prize, which raises expectations whenever she publishes a new novel. Pleasingly, Actress can live up to the hype.
The degree of realism is such that you imagine that the author must have based her central character, Katherine O’ Dell, on some legendary figure drawn from Irish theatrical history.
However, it is not apparent from brief research that this is the case. Instead, the writer has created a perfectly rounded character and then placed her at the centre of an intriguing novel.
Cleverly, the authenticity is established by placing Katherine O’Dell amongst a range of characters some of whom are indisputably fictional but others giants of the 20th century arts scene.
She might well be a symbol for many of the stars of stage and film of the time, built around a series of seductive illusions.
This prototypical Irish colleen was actually born in 1928 in Herne Hill, south London rather than on the other side of the Irish Sea.
Coming from a family steeped in the theatre, she followed her parents around as they try to make ends meet, eventually joining the company of one of the most famous actor-managers of the period, Anew McMaster, as he and his company toured around Ireland.
By her early teens, young Katherine Fitzmaurice (before she borrowed then adapted her mother’s maiden name for the stage and screen) was doing odd backstage jobs, before being plunged into a starring role at a few minutes notice, never looking back.
Before she had left those teens, she had another stroke of good fortune becoming the centrepiece of a major West End hit that transferred to Broadway.
The upward rise, punctuated by the odd minor hiccup, continued with a trip across to the West Coast and Hollywood superstardom. This also led to a marriage of convenience, soon blessed at one remove by the birth of the novel’s narrator, Norah, a writer in the making.
As is the way with works of literary art that centre on artists across assorted genres, what goes up must come down and much of the interest focuses on the impact that the strings and arrows of outrageous fortune have on an outwardly bold but inwardly sensitive character.
Rather than merely focusing on the career of one of Ireland’s most famous actresses, in later life, primarily due to a few snappy words uttered in a TV advert, Actress also explores her psychology in considerable depth.
It then roves more widely, delving almost as deeply into Norah’s life and those of many others who come within the ambit of both mother and daughter.
Although Actress is not a long novel, this is a rich, impressively imagined work about a stage and screen star who may never have existed but seems considerably more human than many real-life figures as seen through their own eyes or those of any but the finest biographers.
Reviewer: Philip Fisher