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Mommie dearest

Anne Enright's new novel takes us backstage, to a daughter trying to understand her famous parent and the corrosive nature of celebrity, writes Henrietta McKervey


Family matters: Anne Enright looks at parental relationships in her new book

Family matters: Anne Enright looks at parental relationships in her new book

Family matters: Anne Enright looks at parental relationships in her new book

They f*** you up your mum and dad. They may not mean to, but they do." If celebrity offspring memoirs teach us anything, it's that no one can do a more thorough job of proving the truth of Philip Larkin's This be the Verse than a famous parent.

As with Carrie Fisher's relationship with Debbie Reynolds in Postcards from the Edge and Wishful Drinking, anecdote after anecdote confirms that some people are designed more for public than private and that being the child of a parent who belongs to the world can be a lonely and miserable experience.

Whether sashaying through the seedy glamour of post-war New York, or hosting parties in the repressive shabbiness of 1970s Dublin, Man Booker winner Anne Enright's Actress creates such a complete and nuanced understanding of screen and stage star Katherine O'Dell that I simply forgot she isn't real.

I didn't so much imagine as remember Katherine and her life of glorious mystery and mysterious glory; she became the plucky heroine - more colleen than sass-mouth dame - of a black-and-white movie one rainy Saturday; the wide-eyed, red-haired beauty on an old theatre poster.

Actress opens long after Katherine's death. Her only child, Norah, is a middle-aged mother and writer, her career "a small agony, of the most banal kind".

Norah decides to write her mother's story - or, rather, her story of her mother's story - after a visit from a student doing a PhD thesis on Katherine.

Like her mother, Norah is not exempt from the desire for some sort of spotlight: "I would have turned it down at one time, but I was getting nostalgic for interviews - it had been a while - and regretful, also, for my own long failure, as I thought, at that particular game."

But the conversation leaves Norah uneasy and full of "an urge to shove her in the back, as she turned towards the gate, an urge to call after her, at the last minute. And a fight four hours later, when you said I should write the damn book myself". "You" is Norah's husband, who she met while a student and living with her mother in Dublin.

One story Norah has never written is "the one I needed to write, the one that was shouting out to be written, the story of my mother and of Boyd O'Neill's wound".

At first glance, Actress is that book: a woman trying to understand her famous mother and that famous mother's bizarre crime.

Yet, it is also a book wrapped within a book, with one life committed to print while another shifts and flexes in the spaces between the lines of Enright's beautiful, precise prose. In deciding to write her mother's story, Norah is also - not half-heartedly, but with restraint - trying to discover the truth of her father's identity.

The shifting character of her child's father was played out by Katherine as if learnt from a script only she can read (but as we discover, this too contains a second, unvoiced story).

As a child, Norah was told many versions of this man and tales of his gallantry and humour, or his style, or kindness, used to temporarily fill the father-shaped hole in her heart.

She imagined movie equivalents, too, though these were harder to cling on to, for in just "a few sharp seconds" the handsome man in the opening scene could become a cold-hearted drunk, or killer. It was awfully hard work, Norah admits, "keeping my dead daddy good".

Katherine lived her life as one grand performance after another while her daughter watched from the wings, but public adoration is as corrosive as it is addictive.

Strangers and friends alike believed themselves free to tell Katherine what they thought of her, a state which must be like drinking saltwater when thirsty, for though the admiration sustained her, "it took just one of these barbs to send her running back home".

Katherine's eventual crime feels like an off-kilter revenge against the nastiness underlying some of her admirers' elaborate courtesy; a mad retaliation against those who needed, "to possess or stain, not her sexuality, but her talent, her life's beautiful, foolish flame".

Norah's memoir is addressed to her husband, yet moments of additional descriptions - such as the passing reference to a curragh as "the beautiful black row-boat from the West of Ireland" - suggest he can't be her only intended audience. In fact, Actress questions the very concept of "audience": it is a book of backstage.

For Norah, backstage was the best place to be, for it was "where everyone was mixed up and undone". In life, Actress suggests, we are backstage all of the time, even in those moments when we believe ourselves to be the star of the show.

No Authority, Enright's recently published UCD Press collection of lectures and short stories from her time as the inaugural Laureate of Irish Fiction, contains a piece on author and New Yorker writer Maeve Brennan.

Enright describes some of Brennan's memoirs as those which "circle around ancient difficulties and refuse to move on". Actress is the antithesis of this approach to the past.

After Katherine's death, Norah is given some theatrical memorabilia relating to her mother, a box of "magical objects with the magic gone out of them".

Actress puts the magic centre stage, where it belongs.

Actress by Anne Enright is published by Jonathan Cape, priced £16.99

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