With her Booker Prize winning The Gathering and later The Green Road, Anne Enright has long since established her position among the best of contemporary Irish writers. Her latest novel begins with a party scene in the house the theater career built or bought, an elegant old place on Dublin’s Dartmouth Square. Norah takes us through a party there, populated by lecherous characters some of whom are her mother’s theater friends, acting out now that Norah’s turned twenty-one. All in good fun, of course, sort of.
From there Norah takes us through her mother’s successes and failures and ultimate downfall, puzzled by much of it, all the while looking back on her own life and its many twists and turns. The chapters on “The Troubles” and the night the crowd burned down the British Embassy put me in mind of the Watts Riots of my own youth in Los Angeles—mayhem so close, one really did wonder how far the surging crowd and violence might reach. O’Dell is rumored to have been active in the IRA, and takes her lumps in the press for that and more. All this is told in non-linear fashion; not chronologically, but as one’s memory works—snippets from adulthood preceding tales of her grandparents’ house—all the while looking for causes or reasons for Katherine’s choices and misbehaviors, and Nora’s own before she met the “you” she’s addressing now and then.
Eventually it becomes clear that her mother’s life held more secrets than even Norah knew. The result is an astonishing portrait of how one famous life hid secrets and atrocities not all of Katherine’s own doing.
Actress is something of a more difficult read, in places, than some of Enright’s others. But the ending is not to be missed, or given away in any review.