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Starring in a novel, just for being famous Pól Ó Muirí reviews ‘Actress’ by Anne Enright (Jonathan Cape, €16.99)

As of a few weeks ago Kourtney has quit Keeping Up With The Kardashians. I do not keep up with the Kardashians but could not avoid the news. I’m embarrassed to say it. I couldn’t escape her fame.

Fame, then.

Norah FitzMaurice in Anne Enright’s latest novel Actress (Jonathan Cape), is not a media celebrity but is, in Irish terms, well-known for being the off-spring of someone well-known. Her mother, Katherine O’Dell, is an actress who found fame in Hollywood in days gone by but who lived long enough to see that fame become diluted over time. Still, in contemporary Dublin, she was once someone of note and her daughter inherits some of the cachet of being the daughter of someone famous. 

The daughter narrates the story and it brings us from Dublin to London to Los Angeles. In between all the travelling, O’Dell’s fame is examined, as is her relationship with her daughter, the poverty of Irish arts (in every sense) is touched upon, religion is ticked, and then there is the student who is writing a thesis on O’Dell and has enlisted Norah for help: “I sit down and write a long email to Holly Devane, who wanted to know about my mother’s ‘sexual style’ (these phrases burn into you slowly, I find)”.

Enright’s exploration of Katherine O’Dell’s life is fluent and shallow; her sudden rise from walk-on bit-player to Hollywood stardom; the unimagined fame and money that follow and then the gradual fall from grace and favour as Hollywood finds newer, younger, talent. The theme is certainly one with which contemporary readers will be familiar: there is Gabriel Byrne in Miller’s Crossing, Brónagh Gallagher in Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction and Domhnall Gleeson in Star Wars. 

We all know about the Hollywood star factory by now. We know how it can make you and break you and we know how actors from Dublin to Ballymena can become stars. 

There is much skimming on Dublin’s literary and cultural life. Various characters and chancers appear, none of whom are particularly pleasant. There is the university lecturer, Niall Duggan, ‘Duggan the Fucker’, with whom Norah sleeps voluntarily once and reluctantly a second time: “Perhaps this is why I helped Niall Duggan with my underwear. The need to sort men’s incompetencies, perhaps. Here let me get that. Even though I was at the time saying no and he was not taking no for an answer”.   (Author’s emphasis.)

There is a duplicitous priest and there are other bits and bobs of bohemian flotsam afloat on the cultural current in joyless Dublin. The city’s pubs, hotels and streets feature while the Troubles also encroach on the sad, sad life of the poor “hackette” as she tries to make a living in an impoverished city. In short, a little bit of everything is thrown at a gloomy city’swalls in the hope that some of it might cling. 

There are one or two genuinely humorous moments: “There was talk of jobs in the Irish Times or ‘out in’ UCD. Are you out in UCD? A place that was exactly two miles down the road”. A hare is, madly, buried at a television centre.

A famous actor has a fist fight in a pub and a plaque is put up to mark the occasion while a Garda at a trial says: “She would only provide answers in the Irish language, he said, but the language that came out of her was not Irish, though she had the feel of it all right. He was from Gweedore himself, he said, which anyone would tell you was the hardest Irish in the world to understand…”. 

The light-hearted moments relieve what is a very turgid story; chiefly because neither of the main characters is particularly engaging or charismatic. O’Dell suffers one horrific, and forensically described, episode in her early career which is intended to give her character depth but which occurs so late in the book as to leave the reader wondering why it is there at all. It certainly points to more contemporary events, such as the fall from grace of Hollywood producer, Harvey Weinstein. It is, without doubt, a life-defining event but one which does not seem to have shaded O’Dell’s character up until that point.

While Norah is just dull and a bit sour; she belongs to that peculiar class of Dublin intellectual who are really not that interesting but, because of who they are and who they know, dominate the roost, such as the roost is.

Kourtney has left the Kardashians. Kourtney may come back. Who really cares?

Fame cannot prop a novel.

Pól Ó  Muirí is a freelance journalist and writer.