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Anne Enright: Actress

Katherine O’Dell is a great Irish actress, star of stage and screen. She conforms to the stereotype of a great actress. She drinks heavily, smokes heavily, has lovers, is flamboyant and likes nothing better than a wild party (at which she, of course, is the centre of attention).

There are a couple of problems. Firstly, great Irish actress she may be but Irish she is not. She was born Katherine Anne FitzMaurice in London and grew up there, daughter of two travelling players. She took her mother’s maiden name – Odell – and Irished it. She has kept this and her date of birth a secret. The other problem occurs later in life, when she is losing her charms. She shoots producer Boyd O’Neill in the foot. She is arrested, pleads insanity and spends three years in a mental hospital and never really recovered, dying aged fifty-eight. Boyd also suffered, ending up having part of his leg amputated.

This story is narrated by Norah FitzMaurice, Katherine’s daughter and now a successful novelist. She has had a mixed childhood. She is devoted to her mother and misses her but, at the same time, her mother’s behaviour was, she felt, at times over the top.

One day, she receives a visit from a young woman who is doing her Ph.D thesis on Katherine O’Dell, with a view to subsequently writing a book. Norah agrees to see her and initially takes to her but then finds her tiresome. Only after she has gone does her husband suggest that she should write the book about her mother.

The rest of the book is her life and times of her mother, starting with her maternal grandparents. They are travelling players, as mentioned, and they are touring Ireland when she is thirteen. A woman is sick and Katherine is drafted in. She is frightened but performs well When the other woman returns, Katherine stays on and there is room for both of them. They become close friends. After the war ends, the two women head for London to start their careers there, though in administration not as actresses.

However, she soon got a job as an actress and though she was nominally the lead in the play she had relatively few lines. Nevertheless it made her a star and did even better when it transferred to Broadway. She found the fame and riches difficult to get used to but soon was on the way to Hollywood.

Enright cleverly mocks the various systems Katherine is exposed to: the melodramatic plays and films she makes (we get quite a few of the plots), rich New Yorkers who take her under their wing, the Hollywood system, agents, other actors.

In Hollywood she is firmly controlled. She is even married to a man selected for her by the studio, Philip Greenfield, an English actor who happens to be gay. He introduces her to serious drinking but, obviously, not to sex.

Norah, meanwhile, has two issues where she herself is concerned. The first is her own somewhat messy sex life but she ends up marrying the (nameless) man whom she is still with when she is writing this book, aged fifty-eight. She seems to be fairly critical of him. The other is the identity of her father. Her mother had given her the story of a married mechanic (and, therefore, quite unsuitable, as far as the studio was concerned) who was killed in a car crash but she soon comes to realise that this is a Hollywood-style melodrama and not the truth. She asks various people if they are her father or know who he is. Publicly it was assumed to be Philip Greenfield but clearly was not him. She will search for him throughout the book.

Politics also comes into it. Norah takes part in the marches following from Bloody Sunday and the subsequent attack on the British Embassy in Dublin. Katherine had been for some time sympathetic to the IRA and she is seen on a march in Derry with IRA members.

In addition to Boyd O’Neill, the man Katherine shoots, there are two other men who play a major role in the lives of both mother and daughter. The first is Niall Duggan, a university lecturer, who teaches Norah and has affairs with many of his female students (they call him Duggan the Fucker), including Norah. He also most certainly has had an affair with Katherine as well. He comes and goes throughout the novel.

Father Des Folan is Katherine’s spiritual adviser but Norah is fairly certain they had a sexual relationship as well. He also gives spiritual advice to Norah. He will also appear throughout the novel.

There are many ways that a writer could write about a star – hagiographic, satirical and gossipy are just three of the ways and Enright throws in a bit of all three. However, as we see Katherine primarily through her daughters eyes, we get a somewhat different perspective as well. Norah loves her mother and misses her after her death, but is also well aware of her mother’s failings. These include drink, men, narcissism, poor decisions in her professional life and, as far as Norah is concerned, Katherine’s failure to tell Norah who her father is.

Enright is such a skilled writer that the novel does not become a Kitty Kelley dish-the-dirt book but rather is a fascinating account both of the rise and fall of an actress and her relationship with her daughter, a mildly successful novelist.

Publishing history

First published in 2020 by Jonathan Cape