In truth, this is more of a personal reaction than a standard review. I’m sure there are reviews a-plenty out there for this novel and I haven’t read any of them.
On the surface, Actress is the story of a mother (Katherine O’Dell, a famous actress) and her daughter (Norah FitzMaurice, a writer), as told by the daughter. At another level, the book is more like a hand of cards with which the author deftly shuffles the concepts of fiction and
reality. It’s been 3 days since I finished my first read of Actress and the book won’t leave me alone.
The storyline and characters bear no resemblance to anything in my own life but the book has stirred something deep and I am puzzling over it. I keep turning the pages at random (shuffling), wondering, how has she done this? Clever, clever, clever. I can’t remember ever feeling so invested in the lives of fictional characters. In fact, I had a lot of trouble convincing myself they actually were fictional, as Google repeatedly indicated. So what has Enright achieved here? Something of literary brilliance, that’s also an absolute delight to read, yes. Is she aware of the power of her words, the strength of the undertow that keeps dragging the reader back out there? Oh, yes. She leaves us her clues with confident precision, sleight-of-hand style, appearing to do one thing whilst doing something completely different. It makes my brain feel like a pretzel. Such mischief! Such disquieting intelligence.
The narrator, Norah, speaking of her own books, says: “People like them, even though they are not true. They are the lie I need to tell, nothing happened, oh look! nothing happened again, there is nothing to see here, ladies and gentlemen, keep moving along.” This is Enright revealing the illusion she has created: something so painfully real that part of me refuses to believe her “sane and lovely falsehoods” are fiction.
When Katherine acts in an advertisement, she becomes haunted by the repetition of the words she has to say: “Sure, ‘tis only butter.” This phrase will inescapably remind some readers of the global Unilever advertisement: “I can’t believe it’s not butter.” Which of course means, “I can’t believe it’s not real”. Precisely. Who is that, laughing quietly? It’s Enright. Like the triple mirror on Katherine’s dressing table, Enright throws reflections back at us from different perspectives, with wit, sly humour, and moments of piercing insight expressed with perfect economy. The pithy display and assessment of emotions, motivations, duplicity, mystery, belief, sexuality.
This novel encompasses so much – everything, in fact – as it tells the story of these two fictional women. What more can we ask, of any writer? Better watch out, Hilary Mantel (The Mirror and the Light) and Evie Wyld (The Bass Rock), because this book HAS to be a
leading contender for the Booker prize. I’m curious to know if other readers from The Book Bird community have had a similar reaction to Actress, and love it as I do. Despite the fact my To Be Read pile is taller than I am, I know I’m going to be reading this book again very soon.
Reviewed by Andrea