Loading...
Loading...
Click here if you don’t see subscription options
Emma Winters September 18, 2020
Photo by Jake Blucker on Unsplash

In Actress, Anne Enright tells the story of a famous Irish theater star, Katherine O’Dell, through the eyes of her daughter. Katherine is a legend for her long career in Ireland, the London West End, Broadway and Hollywood. However, she is better known to a new generation for her role in a butter commercial; at the end of her life, she is best known for shooting a television producer in the foot.

Actressby Anne Enright

W. W. Norton & Company
272p, $26.95

All this may sound like a spoiler, but it is just chapter one. For Enright, the story is not a typical arc but is instead an ever-tightening coil, circling the same events from new vantage points, ready to spring at any moment.

The story is told by Katherine’s daughter, Norah—who in middle age is trying to understand and rediscover her deceased mother, in particular her sexuality. Enright shines in laying bare the mother-daughter relationship. Every detail is so exact and telling that even the absolutely outlandish ones ring true. Katherine is always larger than life, as ephemeral as whatever character she’s playing and as real as the judgmental hand on her daughter’s waist.

I read Actress in the early days of New York’s Covid-19 lockdown, and crammed in my small Manhattan apartment, I relished Katherine’s 1948 Broadway run.

I read Actress in the early days of New York’s Covid-19 lockdown, and crammed in my small Manhattan apartment, I relished Katherine’s 1948 Broadway run. The extravagant lunches, her boat rides in Central Park, her long walks along the East River and her packed theaters: Will such things ever exist again?

Norah often vividly recounts scenes from her mother’s past for which she was not present—including from before her own birth (like the Broadway scenes). And yet for a book with an unreliable narrator, Actress couldn’t be more intimate. At moments, Norah slips into the second person. It’s then you discover the intended audience: her husband. She tells him, “There were times—whole years, perhaps—when you annoyed me, in one way or another, but you don’t annoy me any more.” And so, the reader becomes an interloper—trespassing within a marriage.

Of course, any review of Actress—especially for a Jesuit publication—would be remiss without mention of Father Des Folan, Katherine’s “pet priest…handsome like a wax doll.” Father Folan practices psychoanalysis and looms large over Norah’s understanding of her mother’s sanity and sexuality. He is one of Katherine’s few regular outings in the years before the shooting, so he becomes a gateway to Norah’s opening question: What was Katherine like before she went crazy? Religion and spirituality are the center of Norah’s ever more insightful perspective on sanity, feminine sexuality and her mother—and are interrogated in this exceptional novel.

More: Books / Theater

We don’t have comments turned on everywhere anymore. We have recently relaunched the commenting experience at America and are aiming for a more focused commenting experience with better moderation by opening comments on a select number of articles each day.

But we still want your feedback. You can join the conversation about this article with us in social media on Twitter or Facebook, or in one of our Facebook discussion groups for various topics.

Or send us feedback on this article with one of the options below:

We welcome and read all letters to the editor but, due to the volume received, cannot guarantee a response.

In order to be considered for publication, letters should be brief (around 200 words or less) and include the author’s name and geographic location. Letters may be edited for length and clarity.

We open comments only on select articles so that we can provide a focused and well-moderated discussion on interesting topics. If you think this article provides the opportunity for such a discussion, please let us know what you'd like to talk about, or what interesting question you think readers might want to respond to.

If we decide to open comments on this article, we will email you to let you know.

If you have a message for the author, we will do our best to pass it along. Note that if the article is from a wire service such as Catholic News Service, Religion News Service, or the Associated Press, we will not have direct contact information for the author. We cannot guarantee a response from any author.

We welcome any information that will help us improve the factual accuracy of this piece. Thank you.

Please consult our Contact Us page for other options to reach us.

City and state/province, or if outside Canada or the U.S., city and country. 
When you click submit, this article page will reload. You should see a message at the top of the reloaded page confirming that your feedback has been received.

The latest from america

Reading Andrew Sullivan’s collection, ‘Out on a Limb: Selected Writing, 1989-2021,’ made me realize I’d never heard Sullivan mentioned in conversations about Catholic writers. Why wasn’t he there? And why wasn’t I surprised?
Bill McGarveyJanuary 07, 2022
Diane Wilson’s book 'The Seed Keeper' is an immersive, affecting account of family and history, trauma and survival, seeds and gardening, stories and healing.
David Diop's new novel centers on the filial love between two Senegalese riflemen, close childhood friends who joined the French army because they hoped to become French citizens at the end of World War I.
Diane ScharperDecember 16, 2021
In her new book, Uprooted, Grace Olmstead investigates the social and personal costs of shopping for a place to live the way we shop for cars.
Nathan BeacomDecember 16, 2021