How do you cope with being the daughter of a famous actress? What does it mean to live with someone for whom performing is not just something she does on stage?
Norah’s mother is Katherine O’Dell, the famous Irish stage and screen actress. Katherine was a single mother, and Norah and she were close. Now that Norah is older than her mother would ever be, she looks back at her relationship with her mother, what made her who she was and why, in the end, she “went mad”. This is the story of Katherine and of Norah, and their complicated relationship, narrated by Norah.
“People ask me, ‘What was she like?’, and I try to figure out if they mean as a normal person: what she like in her slippers, eating toast and marmalade, or what she was like as a mother, or what she was like as an actress—we did not use the word star. Mostly though, they mean what was she like before she went crazy, as their own mother might turn overnight, like a bottle of milk left out of the fridge. Or they might, themselves, be slightly askew.”
Katherine was actually born in England as Katherine Anne FitzMaurice, something she would never admit to. Her parents were actors, and she later took her mother’s name, Odell, which was “Irished” to O’Dell when she was in the US, where she had a brief career in film. That was also the time when Katherine started dyeing her hair red. Or as Norah caustically puts it, “At which point, her hair turned red with nostalgia for the old sod”.
Katherine returns to Dublin and to the stage. She becomes a well-known and well-respected actress. But as she gets older, the roles start to fizzle out and she doesn’t get enough work, and the scripts she writes are rejected. Then one day, she shoots Boyd O’Neill, a film-maker who she had known for years, in the foot. That’s the point at which she also starts to lose her mind. Norah was never sure why she shot him, but I think Boyd probably deserved it—he seemed to get a kick out of humiliating her.
Katherine was first and foremost an actress and sometimes it wasn’t clear where the line was between reality and acting, including her role as a mother. She and Norah would sometimes picnic in a little park overlooked by the windows of the buildings around it. Here Katherine was in her element, partly being mother and partly acting her role for the invisible audience looking down. “She did not need to pretend to be my mother, when she was my mother already. That was like double cream.”
There are plenty of secrets in Katherine’s life. Katherine never tells Norah who her father was, except that he was already married. Norah creates an imaginary version of him, a charming dancer who wore tennis ducks. We never find out the entire truth but enough to know that the imaginary version was, well, entirely imaginary.
Watching Katherine in her madness is hard: it is painful to see that vibrant woman losing her grip on reality. “She was in there somewhere”, writes Norah of one of her visits to the clinic to see her. “She was hiding a mile behind her mad green eyes. Come out, come out! I sat there imploring.”
The book is beautifully written. I loved the way Anne Enright describes people and situations: Katherine’s home, for example, is made up of bits of cast-off scenery: “you were always sitting in character, you were just not sure which one”. There was Father Des, whose love for humanity included taking care of Katherine once a week. “Father Des had a kindly air I did not trust, for being universally applied. … It was always lovely when he was in the room, and yet no one had a good time.”
The way Katherine is introduced underlines the way reality and acting mesh within her. You get a sense of the force of her personality but it also feels like you’re watching a play. “Here she is, Katherine O’Dell, making her breakfast, requiring her breakfast from the fridge and the cupboards, some of which delight her and some of which let her down. Where is it, where is it, here it is! Yes! The marmalade. The sun is coming through the window and the smoke from her cigarette rises and twists in an elegant double strand.”
This is a book about celebrity, and the pain and the compromises it entails. It is also about the love between a daughter and a mother that is never straightforward but woven through with protectiveness and pain, old hurts and magical moments.