Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 3, 2020

Actress, by Anne Enright

I read this because Anne Enright is a guest at the forthcoming (digital) Melbourne Writers Festival.  I read The Gathering when it won the Booker Prize and really liked it, and I have The Green Road on the TBR.  But Actress , longlisted for the 2020 Women’s Prize for Fiction, struggled for my sustained engagement…

Is it the book, or is it me and the psychological impact of the Stage 4 Lockdown announced yesterday here in Melbourne? I can’t really say. I enjoyed the introductory chapters, which feature the narrator Norah’s response to a researcher’s intrusive questions about her mother, the (fictional) celebrity actress Katherine O’Dell.  We learn about the close and loving bond between mother and daughter, and it was interesting to read about the child’s behind-the-scenes experience of her mother’s career.  But by about a third of the way through the book my interest was waning, and I started reading Small Town Rising by Bill Green instead because I want to post it along with another book to Bill from The Australian Legend.  (More about that later).

But a book by Anne Enright is too good to abandon, so I came back to it, and it did pick up.  She has a wonderful way with words: a funeral was like a bad matinee in Bognor, she said — the hall was empty and the stage was full. (p.127)  She’s perceptive about racism too, but not in a way you might expect. Putting paid to the current mantra that white people never experience racism, Katherine recalls how she hated London…

… hated the way they sneered at an Irish accent, the racism, she said, was awful.  No Blacks No Dogs No Irish that was the sign you saw still around the place. As far as the English were concerned we were all just dirty-lazy-drunk-and-stupid.  You have no idea what it is like, sitting next to someone at dinner who thinks they are superior to you, that they have been superior to you for centuries, no matter what you achieve and what they fail to achieve, not just in the world but in their horrible little hearts.  Some stunted failure of a human being, looking down his nose at you, because he is English. (p.129)

Talbot street bomb Dublin

Enright’s evocations of the impact of the Troubles are powerful.  While I remember my mother’s anxiety about the possibility of family being caught up in the IRA bombing campaign in London the 1970s, I had thought that the Troubles on Irish soil were all in Northern Ireland.  I hadn’t known that there was a coordinated bombing attack in Dublin, for which in 1993 the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), a loyalist paramilitary group from Northern Ireland, belatedly claimed responsibility.  This is how Norah, then in her twenties, experiences it on a bright sunny day in Merrion Square (just like the day when I visited myself in 2010, so this passage sent a chill down my spine) …

One bright evening in 1974, I was walking home along Merrion Square and I heard the sound of something falling, not very disastrously, in the distance and this was followed by a sharp crack.

‘Did you hear that?’ I said to a passing man, as though we had known each other for years.

‘I think I did,’ he said.

Dubliners talk to each other very easily.  We talk as though getting back to it, after some interruption.

‘Mind how you go,’ he said, and we both hurried up a little, trying to get away from the centre of town.

At the corner of Holles Street, I felt a huge sound.  I thought it had happened under my feet but, when I looked down, nothing beneath me had changed.  I glanced back the way I had come and saw a woman on her hands and knees up by the Mont Clare Hotel.  I knew she was a woman by the handbag still attached to her wrist, flat on the ground, and also by her hat which was hanging on by her hairpin, about to fall.  I had an impulse to catch it. I don’t remember running back to her — those forty seconds or so dropped out of my mind, never to be regained — but by the time I arrived, a man had pulled her upright. (p.161)

That’s brilliant writing, the way she captures that sense of disorientation and the way, in moments of trauma, we focus on irrelevant details like handbags and hatpins.

Kate Kellaway at The Guardian loved Actress more than I did, and you might be able to read this review at the New Yorker if a paywall doesn’t kick in. Both of them focus more on the depiction of celebrity, which — since celebrity culture has passed me by — was of less interest to me.  That might be why, for me, the novel paled a bit in places.

Or I might just be a bit discombobulated…

(The only good thing about the pandemic is that I get to use that word ‘discombobulated’, of which I am rather fond.)

Image credit: Talbot Street bombing Dublin: By Source, Fair use,

Author: Anne Enright
Title: Actress
Cover design by Suzanne Dean
Publisher: Penguin Random House, 2020
ISBN: 9781787332072, pbk., 264 pages
Source: purchased from Benn’s Books Bentleigh, $29.99



  1. Good luck with the lockdown Lisa – stay safe.

    As for Actress, I’ve read reviews from people who’ve enjoyed it but found it flawed, wishing the focus was all on the mother and not the daughter, I’ve not read Enright, although her prose sounds wonderful, but I can’t say I’m madly drawn to this one.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think a lot of people would like the focus on the mother, but I was more interested in the daughter:)

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I like that word discombobulated too. Yesterday I got to use the word “curmudgeon” (rather not say who I was referring to) which sent my granddaughter straight to the dictionary.
    Unlike you I loved Actress. Although I did read it before Covid. For me it was about what it would be like to be the daughter of someone famous and Enright
    painted a very real picture for me.


    • I think there’s always a price to pay when a parent is larger than life, and some jobs require that a person has a huge ego. Actors, politicians, barristers, any job where the person has to believe in themselves to the exclusion of all else, just to be able to do it.


  3. Discombobulated is a great word.

    I missed the chance to use the word subterfuge in a review the other day. Got to love some of these words that aren’t in such common usage right now.

    I am going to her session at MWF. I am looking forward to it.


    • *sigh* Just think, we would have been sitting together for sure at that session…


  4. Discombobulated is a wonderful word – it sounds like what it means! We in NSW are watching on anxiously Lisa.

    I wonder why I have not read any of Enright’s books. I love the passage you have quoted. I was involved in a terrible incident on board a ship when I was only a teenager, and in the midst of fleeing, what I most noticed was the moonlight on the sea & how beautiful it was – the image is still embedded in my mind. Weird.

    Another writer on my “to read” list. I am going to have to live forever to get through all these!


    • Maybe it’s how the mind protects itself from the trauma?


  5. We agree on ‘Actress’, not Anne Enright’s best effort.
    There was a great New Yorker cartoon about the pandemic with the caption: “Finally something we can do together, climbing the walls.”

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I enjoyed this but didn’t love it – some parts worked better than others I thought.


    • I’ve had a look at some of the Goodreads reviews, there seems to be some consensus that it’s a bit uneven. I can’t really see why it was nominated for the Women’s Prize, even longlisted, it’s not that special.


  7. it wasn’t as good as The Gathering but I still enjoyed Actress. I see why some readers found it flawed but for me It just hit the right note at the time.


    • That’s the thing about reading, sometimes it’s not the book, it’s the times we’re in.


      • Plus the mood I’m in. Sometimes I’ll put a book aside thinking its not the right time to read it, and then I’ll come back to it later.

        Liked by 1 person

  8. Have not read it. Like discombobulated. Our family funny was when my mother once called my brother a pugilist and he had no idea what it meant. ‘Look it up!’ she replied. How do you spell it? he said, …Look it up! she said again. We still repeat that scene when together with him.
    Stay sane during lockdown. I think of you guys often. So tough. Character building I like to think. 😃😃😃


    • I love family stories about words and languages.
      For years my father would pause at the front door and straighten his tie before leaving for work and say, “Do I look salubrious?” I always thought it meant handsome or neat and tidy, but no, it means ‘health-giving’.
      My father was very good at irony…


      • That made me laugh. My mother used to drink a lot and when swaying around the house we’d ask if she was okay and she would always reply, Yes, Everything is copacetic. Still makes us laugh when we dig up memories between the siblings.


        • My mother’s favourite was ‘shooftikush’. I have no idea how to spell it, but she always used it to tell us (nicely) to get out of her way when we were underfoot. I used it on and off for years at school until one day a kid asked me how I’d learned Hindi. Well of course I had to ask my mother, and that was when I found out that her father had served in India and that was where he’d learned it. I have a bad feeling that he used it there to order people about…


  9. I did enjoy The Gathering. I too know first hand the snobbish attitude of some English to the Scots particularly aimed at us Glaswegians. Should I blame Billy Connelly? Some almost six decades of being in Oz still have to grin and bear some of the jokes about my funny way of talking. Unfortunately many folk do not understand how discriminatory it is to make fun of how people speak.


    • Yes, I’ve been on the receiving end of that myself.
      Of course, the English are experts at making fun of their own accents, remember that Two Ronnies sketch?


  10. I’m an Enright fan but I couldn’t engage with this one either. I read a review online somewhere in one of the major outlets (but can’t remember which one) which posited the theory that it was “writing by numbers” — ie. that she had figured out how to write flowery, literary prose — lots of show but not much substance — (I’m paraphrasing) which sounds harsh but I kind of understood what the reviewer was saying. Didn’t stop me buying a ticket to the MWF session though… I have heard her talk before (she signed my copy of The Green Road) and she is very entertaining 😊


    • Ouch, that was a mean critic!
      I will be there next to you at the MWF, digitally speaking, that is…

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Well, discombobulated is a great word!

    Liked by 1 person

  12. […] Enright in Conversation: Anne Enright’s new novel Actress (see my review) is a beguiling tale of fame, creativity, courage, survival, and the troubled love between a […]


  13. […] being featured in this year’s all digital Melbourne Writers Festival.  I have already read and reviewed Anne Enright’s Actress, and listened to her session yesterday; and I enjoyed listening to Jan […]


  14. […] Actress, by Anne Enright, which I read and reviewed last year, is a piece of theatre-fiction. I’m sure we can think of other examples, […]


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