Review: Anne Enright, 13 May

Anne Enright

The School of Arts have teamed up with WoWFest2021, with students from across the School previewing and reviewing events from this festival of radical writing, taking place throughout May. 

Naomi Adam (PhD, English) reviews Anne Enright in conversation, 13 May

Following the sage advice of Maria von Trapp (a.k.a. Hollywood starlet Julie Andrews), author Anne Enright chose to ‘start at the very beginning.’ From behind lilac wire-rimmed glasses, in her signature, softly aspirated Dublin lilt, she read an extract from the opening chapter of her latest novel, Actress. Throughout, her career trajectory from stage to page was very much in evidence (she herself was an actress in Dublin in her early twenties). She still has the performer’s knack of completely capturing an audience’s attention. 

Actress, nominated for the 2020 Women’s Prize for Fiction and recently shortlisted for the prestigious Dalkey Award, tells the tale of Katherine O’Dell, celebrated star of stage and screen (and a fiction, before you go a-Googling). The novels moves from city-centre London to Dartmouth Square, Dublin, by way of Sunset Boulevard, as it tracks a career that spirals from lead roles in Brecht and Beckett plays to plugging butter on local television adverts. Regardless, people want to know ‘what she was like as an actress – we did not use the word star.’ Something of a skewed memoir, it’s told from the perspective of Katherine’s daughter, Norah, to the latter’s husband, the narrative’s ‘you.’ Actress has been called ‘captivating’ by the New Yorker, ‘luscious’ by the Guardian, and, rather poetically, ‘a perfect jewel of a book, a dark emerald set in the Irish laureate’s fictional tiara’ by Ruth Scurr of the Spectator. This crowning glory also manages to be a meditation on, among other things, stardom, misogyny, and motherlove. 

These are all themes which occupied the discussion as the author settled down to a (virtual) interview with LJMU professor Sarah Maclennan, followed by a live audience Q&A. 

Enright, for example, noted the sexist gossip culture of Seventies Dublin. Far from believing six impossible things before breakfast, she sketched how it was often six reputations slandered after dinner. And ‘Reputation was often all a woman had,’ she stated, looping back to themes covered in her earlier novels, like 2017’s The Green Room. Indeed, Enright was clear to underscore the novel’s grounding in reality, despite its fictional characters: ‘I picked it up from life.’ Having begun writing Actress just before the Weinstein scandal broke, she had no idea of just how prescient Katherine’s tale would prove to be. Enright observed that, following these revelations and the ensuing #MeToo movement, her novel had to change from an exposé of the industry to a document of its flaws. 

Enright delved deep into the writing process during the interview, talking about everything from plotting and timelines (of which she is a fan) to beginning a new novel after high praise for the last. Is she a fan of this pressure? Not so much. ‘It’s difficult, and anxious, and terrible… It’s always difficult, and anxious, and terrible.’ Nonetheless, her writing process seems to have stood her in good stead up to now: she’s a past winner of the Booker Prize, as well as the current (indeed, the only ever) Irish laureate for literature. 

Aside from her award-winning fiction, Enright’s back-catalogue also boasts a non-fiction memoir, Making Babies: Stumbling into Motherhood (2004). Refusing to acknowledge ‘pride’ in any of her literary creations, this is the work of which she says she is ‘the most fond.’ The novel Actress is also centrally concerned with motherhood. It’s an act of ‘prestidigitation’ (a polysyllabic beaut courtesy of Mclellan), as a daughter tells her famous mother’s story. Norah conjures a narrative of Katherine's life from things witnessed, scenes recollected, rumours overheard. Yet who is ever really authorized to tell the story of another? It’s a question Enright posed in the interview, as well as in her novel, and which she leaves up to the audience (or reader) to answer. 

During the interview, Enright was also understandably cautious when answering questions about Actress’s plot. She skirted around some plot points (a – whisper it – certain shooting); there was some vague, tongue-tied hand-wafting from Mclellan, who clearly has read it, and loved it, then complicit head-nodding from Enright. But she did let slip that she’s currently working on another novel – her eighth – set in Dublin, just up the road from where she took the evening’s Zoom call. It was an exclusive for WoW, and she promised to promote the novel, as-yet-unnamed, at the Festival in the future. ‘It’s got character!’ this WoWFest veteran noted of the event (she previously appeared in the 2009 line-up). As an award-winning author, Enright surely knows a thing or two about character... 

Part of WoWFest21: celebrating 21 years of radical writing. Check out the full programme here