She was a Broadway phenom, a Hollywood luminary, a national treasure in Ireland. And then came the collapse, a disturbing downfall that earned her tabloid infamy and landed her in a psychiatric hospital.
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 (“The Gathering”) 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.
As the story starts, Norah, a novelist whose career resembles Enright’s, learns that an academic wants to write a book about Katherine. Norah isn’t impressed with the scholar’s pitch, but she agrees that her mother deserves the biographical treatment. Maybe she should write it herself? This sends Norah on a fact-gathering journey into her mother’s past and her own hazy beginnings.
Katherine married once, very young, and quickly divorced. She and her husband, a closeted actor, never slept together. Over the years, Katherine refused to tell Norah — or the public — anything specific about her father, a man she’s determined to forget. “Does he have a name?” Norah asks. “Doesn’t deserve one,” her mother replies.
Norah knows she might never crack this lingering mystery. But she resolves to recount Katherine’s story in all its messy, inspiring detail.
The child of barnstorming actors, Katherine grows up in rural theaters that “smelt of farm work.” As a teen, she lands parts as “messengers and maids.” She’s certain that “it could never get better than this.” If not better, Katherine’s career certainly gets bigger. At 20, she has a lead role in a Broadway hit, a room at the Waldorf Astoria and a queue of famous admirers.
Her transition to movies is briefly successful — she shines as a Julie Andrews-esque “running nun” — but fickle producers soon seek younger talent. In her 40s, “she moved from her unconvincing twenties to her mid sixties — there was nothing for her to play in between.” She’s barely middle-aged when she commits a crime that baffles the public.
Katherine’s act “certainly was immoral,” Norah says, but her deterioration highlights the entertainment industry’s ruthless treatment of women. She starves herself for roles and tangles with cruel male talent brokers. This subplot dovetails with another, in which Norah recalls a violent act committed against her by a man she trusted. The twinned story lines are very powerful, as is Enright’s understated prose.
“She was never happy,” Norah says of her mother. “Though she put on a damn fine show.” That’s how the public sees figures like Katherine. But as Enright shows us, it’s rarely so simple.
Kevin Canfield is a New York City-based writer.
By: Anne Enright.
Publisher: W.W. Norton, 264 pages, $26.95.