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Actress by Anne Enright, review: one foot in Hollywood, the other in the IRA

Linda Christian, Tyrone Power and Ivor Novello at the Café de Paris in London in 1951
Linda Christian, Tyrone Power and Ivor Novello at the Café de Paris in London in 1951 Credit: Masters

People in Anne Enright’s novels are forever chasing ghosts. Usually they’re haunted by a common catastrophe: being born to troubled parents, coming to sex the wrong way, having an affair that doesn’t go well. A typical Enright scene gives us, in the first person, a former child who’s padding around a faded family home, trying to figure out how to feel.

Actress is Enright’s seventh novel. It begins in a house in south-east London that our narrator Norah never knew. This is the birthplace of her mother, the late Katherine O’Dell, who was “the most Irish actress in the world” and, thus, Norah reflects, not only “an artist, a rebel and a romantic” but, by dint of her English birth, “a great fake” on top of that.

Katherine was a “star of stage and screen”, moving in the same circles as Ivor Novello and Orson Welles. (They “did not use the word star” when Norah was growing up in Dublin, but there’s no question of that now.) She was triumphant through the late Forties and Fifties, acting in London and New York, and becoming a single mother to Norah in 1952.

But as she grew older, Katherine slid back from screen to stage. She ended up performing Beckett’s Not I in “Yugoslavian and Mallorcan caves”. Later, after her career bottomed out, she went mad, shooting a producer in the foot and being sectioned.

In the decades since her mother’s death in 1986, Norah has busied herself with writing books, but she never tried “the one that was shouting out to be written, the story of my mother and of Boyd O’Neill’s wound”. It’s the interest taken in her mother by a graduate student that unlocks that book at last.

As with most of Enright’s novels, Actress is a fabric of musings: with whom did Katherine sleep to bring Norah about? Why did she shoot Boyd O’Neill, and in a foot as well? Was she into the IRA for more than the radical chic?

Actress is Anne Enright's seventh novel Credit: Jay Williams

The thought has always lingered that Katherine’s madness, like her Irishness, was partly performative. “She thought,” Norah says, “that small ears are the sign of a serial killer and that yellow was the colour of insanity.” She was into Padre Pio too, the Italian priest whose cult in Catholic Ireland seems inexplicable from abroad. Norah’s funniest lines are on such oddities, where the compound ghosts of her mother’s life seem too daft for reality. The Padre was “a terrifying man” with “a rolling, wild eye”; Father Des, her mother’s analyst, was “a Jesuit at large”; on the set of a 1973 film, “the Bishop of Elphin came to bless the camera, he couldn’t be stopped.”

Enright prefers to end sentences tidily, on fully or half-stressed syllables. This creates an air that’s soothing, but with a faintly uncanny edge: the conviction in Norah’s voice is hypnotic. Many of her observations are enviably elegant. Remembering parties at home, for example, she thinks of “a stage in the drinking when faces went slow and the room filled with difficulty”. Elsewhere, she wonders: “What else should a beautiful woman be but contemptuous?” It’s hard to disagree.

The characters in Enright’s novels are absorbing because they seem recognisable in an unassuming way: they’re as lovely, boring and complex as the people outside the books. She doesn’t, in truth, create that many of them, but you expect that if you could ask her narrators, they’d be able to tell you about another grandmother, or first lover, or kooky aunt, and these would all be as different and interesting as the narrators are themselves.

But the characters in her latest aren’t painted as richly as usual. The lesser ones, from the pervy lecturer Niall Duggan to the kindly Father Des – “he made me feel like a potted plant” – are rendered as wryly as ever, but they don’t shine for long enough. They’re kept to the fringe of Norah’s memories, because this book is about her mother, and a mother is another grade of star.

And this mother, more than most, was never not on stage. “What can I say?” Norah sighs. “When she ate toast and marmalade she was like anyone else eating toast and marmalade.” Except she wasn’t, for in her daughter’s memory, “the sun is coming through the window” and “the smoke from her cigarette rises and twists in an elegant, double strand”. That’s how it happens in the movies, but you have to be bewitched to make a real person look that good.

Actress is published by Jonathan Cape at £16.99. To order your copy for £14.99, call 0844 871 1514 or visit the Telegraph Bookshop