The most fraught word in any language: mother. The most fraught of all familial relations: mother and daughter. A fraught loop in the mother-daughter knot: the daughter who must be her mother’s mother. Add to this the daughter who must also be her mother’s nurse, sidekick, accountant and most ardent fan, and you have the steaming brew that is Anne Enright’s intoxicating novel ... the triumph of Actress is that Norah is not a resentful victim; she becomes a successful writer, a happily married (and sexually fulfilled) wife and mother. She realizes the price she has had to pay for her mother, but knows that Katherine has also graced her life with radiance ... Even while laughing at Enright’s wicked mockery, I was moved by the tenderness of her evocation of difficult love, two lives on different tracks, one on the express to possibility, the other on the local to irrelevance, illness and self-destruction.
... an extraordinarily artful fusion of third-person narration and first-person recollection ... One of the pleasures of reading Actress lies in the accuracy of Enright’s evocation of Irish culture over the last seven decades ... Enright manages to be both excoriating and mildly disdainful about the sexual politics of the 1970s because Norah has moved beyond it. We look through Norah’s eyes ... Enright is interested in agency (so closely allied with action and acting) and how to distinguish, in the mess of encounters with actual men, between choice and determination ... Norah can move through this world with a measure of ease. The rich mixture of tones in her voice (arch, hurt, humorous, biting) is a resource she has developed to survive in that climate, and it is one of the novel’s gifts to the reader. It’s the voice of a sharp-eyed young woman who simply has to get on with it ... Enright skirts close to the cliché that writing our own story in our own voice sets us free. But in doing so she reminds us that there is some small truth in the cliché.
Enright is quick, knowing, enjoyably sharp as she sketches in the career of a romantic screen heroine ... Enright’s novel works by circling and revisiting certain encounters, weighing them for meaning, taking account of numbness and aberrant feeling. Rather than the strong arcs of loss and resolution in a Hollywood plot, Actress makes room for siftings and digressions ... There are leaps of joy in Actress, for all its darkness. It sparkles with light, rapid, shrugging wit; cliches are skewered in seconds, and thespian types are affectionately set in motion to carry on chatting in the margins. The magic of pre-war touring players, holding audiences rapt in country halls, is richly done ... The atmosphere of extraordinary pressure and imperilled emotion that Enright evokes in this novel reaches beyond the mother-daughter pair, beyond the power struggles of actors and movie studios, out into the general Dublin night.
Anne Enright writes so well that she just might ruin you for anyone else. The deceptively casual flow of her stories belies their craft, a profound intelligence sealed invisibly behind life’s mirror ... thoughtful, sometimes wrenching ... The chronology would appear no more ordered than the flow of anecdotes around a dinner table, but there’s always a design to Enright’s novels, a gradual coalescing of insight. Early on, Actress glides from one hilarious, calamitous theater story to the next ... the epitome of Enright’s subtlety: the way she can suggest the anaerobic pain of a strained marriage with just a few lines ... Stripped raw of any sentimentality, the result is a critique, a confession, a love letter — and another brilliant novel from Anne Enright.
Anne Enright has an unmistakable diction and a genius for arresting detail. Her novel, a daughter’s account of her once-famous actress mother’s life, is a many-sided thing ... It’s a tender account of mother-daughter love and how protective it is at heart ... Actress is especially good in its evocation of an Ireland and a Dublin that is vanished ... Enright, has a knack for identifying a female perspective ... It’s a good read in the sense of a story well told, but not in the sense that you really must find out what happens next; if you want a novel that’s compelling rather than elegiac, this isn’t it.
...Actress contains much more than seems possible for a 264-page novel ... this is not a plot-driven novel. Its lack of structure may be a bug or a feature but it adds to the sense that this is a portrait of a woman in full, a life irreducibly complex ... At times Actress reads like a performance in itself: look at what a writer at the heights can do. There is micro-brilliance in individual lines ... Or there are the sustained sequences which pin the reader to the chair ... Most of all, Actress does what novels so rarely do: shows us both sides of everything, the performance and the reality, up close and distant, the division between the person we know and the person we see. As James Salter put it, 'there are really two kinds of life. There is the one people believe you are living, and there is the other. It is this other which causes the trouble, this other we long to see.'
Family ties have always been a central focus of Anne Enright’s probing, gorgeously written fiction, and her new novel examines two in eloquent detail ... Though the tone here is generally dark, Enright is bitingly funny about academic jargon and other forms of blather ... Enright’s unflinching portrait...is scrupulously developed and painfully moving ... Enright is too discerning an artist to make blanket assertions about human nature or human behavior, and her characters are too vibrant to be neatly categorized.
It is a picaresque tale of strolling players and backstage passions, although any temptation to romanticise events is scotched by Norah ... Enright does a good job of teasing the reader into thinking that her novel is going to be nothing more than an old-fashioned family saga with sequins and better lighting. What changes everything is the revelation that Norah is a novelist, who as she looks back at her mother’s history discovers uncomfortable parallels with her own life, not least their appalling treatment at the hands of certain men. As with Enright’s 2007 Booker prizewinning novel The Gathering, the result is a creeping sense of dread as family secrets are revealed and memories are twisted together into a tangle of truth and lies ... While the narrative jumps around in a way that is true to the workings of memory (Enright’s epigraph is taken from Proust), the ending is so downbeat it creates a strange sense of anticlimax. Perhaps it’s supposed to reflect the open-endedness of real life, but when you close the novel it’s hard to escape the feeling that Norah’s admission about her 'slightly nondescript' characters, which is that they 'just realise things and feel sad,' isn’t that different from what you have just read.
Told with a steely eye and deadpan humour, the narrative hops between past and present, weaving together accounts of O'Dell's exploits in Hollywood, Dublin and West End, her descent into madness, and vignettes of Norah's own romantic life. Enright writes with a quiet lyricism, sans the Joycean meanderings of fellow Irish novelists such as Eimear McBride and Anna Burns. There is a maturity to her writing; an emotional astuteness rendered in prose so self-assured it has little need to draw attention to itself ... This is not a novel that should be read for its plot or its stylistic flourishes. Enright - steady, assured and faultless in her prose—may put off readers whose sensibilities tend towards the flashier stars of the book world. Readers who peer harder will appreciate the deceptive effortlessness of the writing— and perhaps wonder how much we should trust the teller of the tale.
Anne Enright’s puzzling new novel is a counterblast against reductive thinking that struggles to offer a satisfying rival vision ... What kind of account emerges from this tangled sensibility? For the most part, a plodding, traditional one, the product of Norah’s Virgoan instincts and with a strong emphasis on the equivalents, in her mother’s life, of Yalta and the gulags. Enright is an exceptionally gifted novelist, capable of leaping comedy...as well as unblinking depictions of Irish family life...and she has been justly praised for her precise and idiosyncratic phrasing. But Actress is written for long stretches in straight biographese...as it moves from legacy to cradle to grave and back to legacy via the thrill of making it and the toils of mid-career. After you finish Actress, the title seems to signal not an archetype—ambiguous, multiple—but a stereotype ... The novel only comes alive as a daughter’s ambivalent first-hand account, streaming with intimate detail-memories ... Enright might have been better served by a mode like that used by Janet Malcolm in her episodic profile of the painter David Salle (“Forty-One False Starts), or by adopting the philosophy of how to grasp an elusive subject espoused by Fitzgerald’s Cecilia Brady—'dimly and in flashes.'
It is a perfect jewel of a book, a dark emerald set in the Irish laureate’s fictional tiara ... Its brilliance is complex and multifaceted, but completely lucid. Like its predecessors, it is a portrait of a matriarch ... Actress is a deeply humane, often darkly funny novel about the exercise of power over sexually attractive women. The grim subject matter is illuminated by Enright’s acute sensitivity to language.
...a breathtaking performance which whirls the reader from rural Ireland during the Second World War ... Actress is not necessarily an 'Irish' book, and its language recalls the precision of Vladimir Nabokov, along with the sly revelations of Henry James’s What Maisie Knew and Madame de Staël’s exploration of female performance in Corinne, ou L’Italie ... Certainly, she writes 'the most extraordinary sentences,' but reading or isolating her at this level, as many critics seem tempted to do, risks overshadowing how her sentences are pleated throughout, risks undermining the musicality of the entire composition ... Actress is a tour de force of half-concealed effects and slow-burning revelations that splutter suddenly into flame.
... resolutely unshowy ... [Enright's] work is deceptively low-key, but rich with shared experience. Bombs detonate in the background while Enright focuses on the complexities of human connection ... This is a slow read—for the first quarter, almost deal-breakingly so—but gradually the subtleties form into something profound and complex. Norah’s voice may be self-effacing but her observations are sharp and true ... a wry challenge, easily overlooked, but witty and really rather brilliant—Enright, then, in a nutshell.
Enright deftly depicts [Katherine's] assault and Norah’s self-recrimination in its aftermath ... The emotional core of Actress takes some time to emerge, as the narrative gets waylaid by a barrage of biographical detail ... If Actress lacks the robust characterisations of some of her other novels, it does leave you with things to think about: we come away considering complex gender dynamics in a more nuanced way.
What lies ahead is the best novel involving theatre since Angela Carter’s Wise Children, although this is a more ambiguous love letter to the theatre than Carter’s ebullient book ... Actress is by no means light reading, but its desolations are offset by diverting writing, garnished with hope ... Norah notes: 'Dubliners talk to each other very easily. We talk as though getting back to it, after some interruption.' Perhaps this explains something about Enright’s prose: its trusting fluency, momentum, lack of aloofness ... The many strands in this novel all stick. What’s more, you have to keep reminding yourself that each one is fictional ... This novel achieves what no real actor’s memoir could.
There’s a delightful and comic account of her early teenage years with a theatrical company touring small towns and villages in the west and midlands of neutral Ireland during the war ... In truth, Norah herself is not a very interesting character. So, to this extent anyway, the doubt whether Enright could maintain the delightful brilliance of her first chapter is justified. Interest sags whenever Katherine is off the stage ... This is not a perfect novel, even, after its early brilliance, a somewhat disappointing one; nevertheless it is always interesting, and for the most part very enjoyable.
Enright’s indelible images of the primal love between mother and daughter that ebbs, flows, and ultimately abides will stick with readers ... Enright portrays her characters in precise, vivid detail and composes their interior architecture with inspired insight into all of humanity. In this powerfully poetic, psychologically and philosophically astute, and ultimately uplifting novel, the difficulty of truly knowing someone, even your own self, given the tricks of remembering and misremembering, is a dominant theme. The ups and downs of the artist’s life, the dynamic between those who create and those who can’t, the cost of fame, and the timely topic of how two generations of women confront, in different ways, the imperious power of men add to the depth and brilliance of this artful work.
... evocative, incisive ... Enright portrays her characters with tenderness and grace , depicting a fraught mother-daughter relationship without cliché or condescension. Enright’s fans will love this sharp, moving work.
... how things seem is the central conceit of theater and a concept that Enright, who has worked in theater and television, has addressed in her writing before. But Actress attempts to tackle these old questions at different angles and with a steadier hand than her earlier, rawer books ... Enright’s characterization of the contemporary graduate student is embarrassingly accurate, and indicative of the detailed ways she handles familiar figures, making them at once an archetype and fully formed ... Norah’s ability to inhabit these different narrative roles—memoirist, historian, novelist, daughter, mother, wife, child, and adult—is perhaps the novel’s greatest feat, even if her project is a flawed endeavor to begin with. Mothers, famous or not, are perpetually unknown to their daughters, and vice versa. But it’s an attempt that is not unfamiliar to long-term readers of Enright: her novels are constantly fascinated by families and the ways they tangle together and split apart ... Katherine and Norah’s schism is more of a hairline fracture, and seems remarkably run-of-the-mill, given the circumstances ... returns to a more meditative, meticulous tone, with those wonderful quirks of first-person narration that Enright captures so well. Enright has always had a talent for letting her narrators carry readers through their story the same way our brains carry on through our own memories: in patchy, seemingly detached bursts of imagery that never quite make narrative sense but manage to create a cohesive whole nonetheless. Perfect clarity is never what Enright is after; her game lies in simulating the experience of memory, of recreating a realistic relationship with the past, which, as we all know, never provides satisfactory closure ... This is not to claim that Actress is all narrative technique and no plot. In fact, the reason why Norah’s narration works is because Enright understands the maneuvers our brains make in order to avoid certain areas of memories. This creates suspense for the reader, who cannot know all that Norah is avoiding, even though the vague outline of the story is given in the first couple of pages ... The plot is far from incidental; it’s deliberate, detailed and revealed in subtle, sometimes startling ways. It’s no small accomplishment to have a story centered around a movie star going mad and keep the reader focused on the pithy details of earlobes and accents. But it’s these perfect details, often linked to the body, that turn what could be a soapy piece of fictional film trivia or a mere experiment in narrative form into a literally fleshy, fully realized novel ... On one hand, it seems to be a plotty, well-researched novel about the history of Irish theater, about women in film, about fame, about bad men and difficult love, about mothers and daughters decades ago and mothers and daughters now. But on the other hand, it is a crafty display of the strangeness of first-person narration. Norah’s voice is completely uninhibited, yet overly aware of its limitations; focused on its goal, but also flighty and human. A buoyant, delightfully flexible book, Actress at once fits comfortably in Enright’s canon, and seems to be answering old questions in new, unanticipated ways. If she snags a second Booker because of this book, I would hardly be surprised.
... beguiling ... reads like an extended prose version of a Robert Browning dramatic monologue ... entertaining and engrossing. It seems so real that a reader might expect to see photographs. The story is grounded in reality but fabricated on the 'cardboard, greasepaint, and panic' of the theater world. The gravitas of the title is deeply rooted in the complicated, never-ending generational ties between mother and daughter. This is the stellar must-read novel of the year.
Unlike [Enright's] past work, this offering features a decidedly stripped-back family – for the most part just a mother-and-daughter pairing. Fortunately, smaller scale doesn’t mean fewer rewards. This is another skilfully crafted, emotionally charged novel from an expert practitioner ... Enright’s depiction of Katherine’s final-act decline is poignantly done. Equally impressive is her vivid rendering and incisive examination of the acting world – by turns convivial and cut-throat ... the novel isn’t solely about Katherine. With great subtlety, Enright allows elements of Norah’s story to overlap ... Enright has given us another first-rate performance.
On the face of it, Actress shouldn’t be as powerful a novel as it is. It’s full of clichés: the ingénue actress, the bad man, the older, alcoholic actress dosed up to her eyeballs on lithium, the other bad man. But to reduce this novel to its plot components traduces it – like forcing an object into a container that doesn’t fit. Many novels about actresses seem weary of their subject matter, desperate to prove that their interest in celebrity belongs to the deeper, morally righteous trade of Literature. Enright has no such boring qualms and showbusiness is well within her scope. She understands the illusion; she also understands the cost ... depicts an Ireland of the past, but there is, thankfully, no nostalgia here ... Enright, sensibly, doesn’t care if she has your sympathy – she’s too cold, too sharp ... No one understands rage, or the lucid, bleached moments that follow it, better than Enright.
The problem of truly knowing the people one is closest to haunts this behind-the-curtains drama ... For all of the emotional tumult in Actress, however, there is also a great deal of simple and wonderfully immersive storytelling, particularly in the evocations of Katherine’s beginnings in an itinerant theater troupe ... There is something that seems effortless about Ms. Enright’s writing—an illusion, of course, but one brilliantly sustained. Her anecdotes are charming, perceptive and raconteurial without histrionics. Like a great actress, the author is made invisible by the spell of her performance ... By the end of Actress the prose has become high-strung and insistent, an outlet for long-repressed anger ... I will confess that I missed the glamour and excitement of the opening of the book, when the play was the thing. But I don’t deny the bare-knuckled force of Ms. Enright’s unanswerable concluding question. Who are we, to ourselves and to others, when our illusions finally fail?
And there is a lot of pain in these pages: intentional and unintentional cruelty, abuse, and misogyny. But Enright provides a rare and valuable counterweight: Norah is long-married—not easily, but abidingly—to a good man ... Likewise, the author’s ability to feature a quiet, satisfactory marriage, making it interesting, is Enright’s—it is famously difficult to write engaging fiction about good people, and yet she accomplishes the challenge with grace ... the deliberate, child’s eye beginning allows Enright to illuminate for us the way a real relationship can exist with artifice, as two simultaneous realities, rather than one negating or superseding the other ... Enright works magic here, making visible in Actress the primal origin stories embedded in and surrounding our own.
What happened to Katherine O’Dell? It’s what all of Dublin wants to know. But it isn’t the only riveting story line in Actress, Anne Enright’s new novel. The Irish author and Man Booker Prize winner...has crafted a perceptive portrait of a complex fictional performer, the headliner in a captivating story about celebrity, grief and family secrets ... Katherine may be the main attraction, but her daughter Norah is the book’s most relatable character... The twinned story lines are very powerful, as is Enright’s understated prose.
Enright is a powerful storyteller with the ability to portray with a quiet grace the nuances of Irish culture ... Actress is at times compelling, but it’s not Enright’s best work—nor is it always all that compelling ... Along the way, as the reader is shuttled, sometimes exhaustingly, through the shadows of Katherine’s life by Enright, there are wonderful moments that come close to making the story come alive ... There’s poetry in the book. And honesty. One can hear the voice of the narrator center stage but too many characters—husbands and children and lovers—stay lifelessly behind the curtain.
This touching novel charts a star’s decline, from early Broadway and Hollywood fame in 1948 to her sad later years, when she was reduced to degrading stage roles and a commercial for Irish butter ... The pacing is too leisurely at times, but Actress is at its best when Enright examines the complexities of this unusual mother-daughter bond. Memorable descriptions of even secondary characters make this book a treat ... As Enright shows, love often looks glamorous, but sometimes it’s only a guise.
... captivating ... The voice Enright conjures for Norah is lissome and intimate. She has an eye for the unexpected and exacting image...These images are associative and digressive, the way memory is. The story is easy to follow but difficult to reconstruct. But that may be part of Enright’s point. Making a narrative out of the inchoate past inevitably entails selection—and perhaps some level of deception ... Every so often, the novel shifts into the second person. The addressee is Norah’s husband. In these sections, the mood is warm and tender, and Enright shows herself to be a careful observer of long-term monogamy—its uneven tempo, its alternating major and minor keys.
... a mature retrospective of sharing life with a towering but troubled figure ... The complexities of this mother/daughter relationship and its context in Ireland, the men it includes, and the turns both women’s lives take through the decades are the meat of this tender, possessive, searching new novel ... Saga-esque ... Another triumph for Enright: a confluence of lyrical prose, immediacy, warmth, and emotional insight.