The Sunday Magazine

Anne Enright's latest novel 'Actress' is imbued with mother-daughter dynamics

Set in a post-war America and Dublin in the 1970s, Anne Enright's novel is the story of Irish theatre legend, Katherine O'Dell, as written by her daughter Norah.

A daughter's search to understand her mother's hidden truths

Man Booker Prize-winner and bestselling author Anne Enright lives just outside Dublin, Ireland. Her latest novel is called Actress. (Hugh Chaloner/Penguin Random House)

The Irish novelist Anne Enright once said, "being a writer is mostly a question of typing" — which, coming from such an acclaimed author, is like saying that becoming an experienced sailor is just a matter of buying a captain's hat. 

Enright won the Man Booker Prize for her novel The Gathering, and was awarded the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction for The Forgotten Waltz. In 2015, she was named the first laureate for Irish fiction.

Anne Enright often writes about families — distraught, cranky, fractured, haunted characters connected by bile and blood. Her new novel Actress has a different kind of arrangement at its heart — a mother-daughter dyad.

The mother, Katherine O'Dell, is an Irish icon of the stage and screen. She's also a maverick, a bohemian and a single mother who has one child, a daughter named Norah. But things don't end well for Katherine. She goes mad, shoots an influential film producer in the foot, winds up in a mental hospital and dies when she's only 58 years old.

Norah embarks to understand the woman who wore Dior, dyed her hair flaming red and flirted with the Irish Republican Army. She looked back to a time, "when you look at your mother and think that she is the most amazing human being in the world, and I do remember doing that myself, maybe at eight or nine," said Enright. "That stage when you're fascinated by her perfume or by the contents of her dresser drawer or without that little stage." She adds that this age is "where Norah really is most at home, that place where she has this really intriguing, interesting person in her life. And her mother is constantly amazing and lovely in her gaze."

Stitched into the book is a nostalgia for the theatre and the characters who populate it.

At the time she was writing the novel, Donald Trump was elected as the U.S. president and revelations broke about Hollywood predator, Harvey Weinstein. 

"When I think in feminist terms, for me in those months, I had to remind myself how many good men I know and how many good men are in my life, in order to somehow puzzle through this. The rise of misogyny has become so evident in populist movements in the States and elsewhere. And so I thought a lot about what it was that a good man can do as an authority figure in your life," said Enright.

"I saw with the character of Katherine and what she went through, that I could do things that had multiple meanings … and that's what gets me going at the desk. I could see that it would have resonances in one or other way."

Click 'listen' above to hear the full interview

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