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Pickle Me This

May 1, 2020

Actress, by Anne Enright

I find Anne Enright difficult, but not in the way I find other writers difficult. Which is so much so that I have absolutely no desire to read them, because life is difficult enough. But the work is usually worth it with Anne Enright, whose books are strange and beguiling, although ordinary at first glance—although I didn’t love her most recent The Green Road so much, a novel that was interesting that never really hung together in the way I wanted it to. For me, Actress was more satisfying, but also strange and disorienting, which isn’t a bad thing for a novel. Uncanny: to be both at home and not at home.

It’s the kind of book that’s just so specific, the kind of book of which you can’t say “it’s the kind of book…” at all otherwise. It’s so specific that’s difficult to fully comprehend that this is fiction, that Enright made the whole thing up, the singularly personality and career of Katherine O’Dell, the Irish theatre legend, her story told by her daughter, Norah, who grew up in her mother’s shadow, but this experience too is singular, as human experiences are. This is no Mommie Dearest, is what I mean. It’s so richly imagined and then filtered through the lens of Norah’s perspective, who’s missing half the details. A story by a daughter of her mother that is not a story of neglect or a litany of grievances, though there are some of these, but no more than with any human being. A different kind of take on mothers and daughters, that one can regard the other as a human being—albeit a complicated and flawed one, one who was eventually admitted to a psychiatric hospital after shooting a producer in the foot (which was less funny than it sounds—the injury caused torture for the rest of his days).

I appreciated this novel more after having read Say Nothing, by Patrick Radden Keefe, which filled in my understanding of The Troubles in Northern Ireland in the 1970s, though this part of the story is peripheral in The Actress. Intentionally so, because there are many things that Norah doesn’t want to know about her mother. But the part that resonated for me as I read this book in April 2020:

A funny thing happens when the world turns, as it turned for us on the night we burned the British embassy down. You wake up the next morning and carry on.

Anne Enright, The Acress

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