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An ambitious but uneven portrait of a Hibernophile actress on the slide

Fiction: Actress

Anne Enright

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Anne Enright's Katherine O’Dell is a warm if slightly scatty figure, with elements of Edna O’Brien and Maureen O’Hara

Anne Enright's Katherine O’Dell is a warm if slightly scatty figure, with elements of Edna O’Brien and Maureen O’Hara

Anne Enright's Katherine O’Dell is a warm if slightly scatty figure, with elements of Edna O’Brien and Maureen O’Hara

When Alfred Willmore from Kensal Green, London, decided to become Irish he changed his name to Micheal MacLiammoir, learned Gaelic and successfully covered his Saxon tracks for years.

When the equally English Katherine Odell - heroine of Anne Enright's novel - made a similar transformation she simply stuck in an apostrophe, turning it into O'Dell, and dyed her hair red.

In later years she went a bit far when, to the fury of her daughter, narrator of this story, she took to referring to herself and the Provo bombers collectively as Us.

The daughter of an acting couple, the young Katherine learned her trade with the distinguished actor/manager Anew McMaster as he made his flamboyant way around Ireland in the 1940s, bringing Shakespeare and assorted melodramas to the culture-starved provinces.

In a novel not overloaded with hilarity, the section on the hand-to-mouth existence of these brave performers has some of the most enjoyable passages, showing how the audiences entered into the spirit of the proceedings on the stage. "Oh give her a good shake," a woman in Ballyshannon urged a distraught Romeo as he hovered uncertainly over the apparently dead Juliet.

Anew McMaster was of course a real person; in a note Enright says the other key characters are fictional.

But a jarring tone is struck when a well-known Dublin journalist, long dead, is mentioned by name and referred to as "a poisonous little soak". Those who knew this urbane and witty man will reject the description. And his family might feel even more strongly about it.

Actress follows the career of the rising star Katherine O'Dell as she stuns the world, first on stage and then in Hollywood. She's a warm if slightly scatty figure, hugely popular with audiences, with elements of Edna O'Brien and Maureen O'Hara in the mix, with a dash of alcoholism added.

Norah, daughter and narrator, is sometimes peeved at the adulation shown to her mother but it is much later that her anguished cry comes: "My mad mother shot Boyd O'Neill in the foot." And wound up in the Central Mental Hospital.

After success on Broadway she has a spell in Hollywood where she stars in a film called Mulligan's Holy Wars set in France during the Allied invasion.

She's a nursing sister who falls for Capt Mulligan and kisses him as he dies, after which she is required to emote the line: "He is gone from me now. He has taken the moon with him and the sun too."

The star period doesn't seem to last too long and back in Dublin, in Dartmouth Square, she is on a gentle slide. When Katherine is centre stage the novel works quite well: less satisfactory are the long stretches when the self-obsessed Norah dominates. She has a boyfriend, from Rathfarnham, who is "outlandishly interesting" and "overly intelligent".

She tries to be "less mousy" for him. In long passages she addresses the absent lad: "Your eyebrows moved together, regretfully high and you used your hands when you talked."

Some passages are baffling: Norah muses: "What is it about heterosexual men? I have seen it so many times. The pang they get when a good-looking woman smiles at them, as though she has just humiliated them in some way."

Actress is an ambitious novel - as one would expect - and is often engaging though uneven, and some might find the character of Norah confusing, with her compulsion towards bad sex with people she doesn't like. And the male characters are thinly sketched, almost like afterthoughts.

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