Women’s Prize for Fiction 2020: Actress and Weather

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In Anne Enright’s seventh novel, Actress, Norah narrates the story of her relationship with her mother, Katherine O’Dell, an English-Irish star of stage and screen who became notorious in her later years after shooting a filmmaker in the foot. Actress possesses all the gifts that I encountered in the one previous Enright novel I’ve read, The Gathering. On a sentence-by-sentence level, Enright’s prose is always impeccable and frequently, startlingly good. Two particular examples that stood out for me were both about motherhood. Trying to conceive a child, Norah muses, ‘secretly, I did not think I was capable of having a baby. I could not align my wanting. If I could just want the right thing, I thought, and at the right time, then my body would give in and want it too’. Finding her real father would be ‘the rope I needed to haul my baby out of the universe and into my body.’ Later in the novel, when her daughter, Pamela, is grown, Norah stands in her childhood room and reflects, ‘I like to think of her growing up in here, with infinite slowness, filling the length of the bed.’ However, you could probably open Actress on any page and find a gem. Enright will never resort to lazy shorthand; the world and the characters she evokes in this novel are utterly distinctive.

Nevertheless, I couldn’t warm to Actress any more than I could warm to The Gathering. It feels like a massive critical failure to say that a novel is ‘too grim’, but that’s what keeps coming back to me with Enright’s work. I can’t really warm to her literary projects, because there’s something about her view of the world that I just don’t like. With Actress, this is partly because of a mismatch between my expectations and the novel she actually chose to write – we’re told Katherine was a star, but any actual success she had in her career is blink and you’ll miss it. I can see how this may have been absolutely deliberate; Norah certainly lingers on the more unpleasant aspects of her mother’s character. But Katherine’s stardom was the bit I most wanted to read about! Ultimately, the unleavened misery of these characters was just too much for me, so while I have to admire Enright’s skill (and the memorable front cover), this wasn’t a book I enjoyed reading or will return to.

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It was the same after 9/11, there was that hum in the air. Everyone everywhere talking about the same thing. In stores, in restaurants, on the subway. My friend met me at the diner for coffee. His family fled Iran one week before the Shah fell. He didn’t want to talk about the hum. I pressed him though. Your people have finally fallen into history, he said. The rest of us are already here.

Jenny Offill’s Weather was already a timely novel, but since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, it’s become almost unbearably prescient. The New York narrator’s disconnected musings were, when this was published way back at the beginning of February, knitted together by the fear of catastrophic climate change; however, Lizzie is more afraid for her son and her niece than for herself. ‘If climate departure happens in New York when predicted, Eli and Iris could – “Do you really think you can protect them? In 2047?”‘ Now, of course, a kind of disaster seems to have arrived much faster than even the fearful Lizzie could have predicted, and this book feels weirdly, brilliantly, both pre- and post-pandemic. Offill could never have anticipated this timing, but I believe that one of the reasons this holds up so well is the strength and truth of her writing. At times, I felt like she was rummaging around in my brain.

I can see how some might feel that Weather reads like a series of isolated observations, all very profound and quotable but not adding up to anything meaningful as a whole. However, that wasn’t how I experienced it. I felt as if I was following Lizzie’s thought patterns, understanding instinctively why she flips from one set of concerns to another, because I could see how they were tied together. A novel that deals with human extinction should theoretically struggle to get the reader to care about the other mundane details of its protagonist’s life, but Offill shows us how nobody can shed these kinds of concerns even when they’re trying to face up to the end of days. Lizzie’s touch of osteoarthritis reminds her as vividly of her own mortality as the ‘prepper’ literature she’s absorbing: ‘Later, when I tell Ben the gout story, my voice is less jaunty than I intend. I make a little joke and the room steadies. But I saw his eyes. I know what he’s remembering. That time the dog’s muzzle went grey.’ Profoundly disturbing but also very funny, Weather is the surprise hit for me from the Women’s Prize longlist.

I’m aiming to read all sixteen books on the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist this year. These are numbers eleven and twelve. I’ve already read Girl, Woman, Other; The Dutch House; QueenieDjinn Patrol on the Purple Line; Nightingale Point; Dominicana; Girl; How We DisappearedA Thousand Ships; and Hamnet.

For anyone who took part in my Twitter poll and is concerned that I seem to have forgotten to read Fleishman Is In Trouble; I started it first but it has been leapfrogged by a couple of shorter longlistees! I am enjoying it, but am reading it very slowly 🙂

32 thoughts on “Women’s Prize for Fiction 2020: Actress and Weather

  1. I haven’t yet read ‘Actress’. It was waiting for me at the library when lockdown started. However, her previous novel, ‘The Green Road’, I thought was absolutely brilliant. When you feel ready to go back to Enright I really advise that you read that one.

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  2. I also had trouble warming to Actress; the only one of Enright’s books that I’ve loved is The Green Road. (I wondered about this UK cover: whether Enright started with the image, or whether the photo was staged. There’s that one page where she describes the photo in such detail that I felt it had to be one or the other. I think it’s a lot more relevant to the book than the US cover, which has a redhead against a green background.)

    I’m so pleased you enjoyed Weather more than you were expecting to. I read it in late February and thought it was a perfect book for 2020 — and so much more so now!

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    • The Green Road seems to come highly recommended by a lot of people!

      I’m fascinated by the cover for similar reasons. It is a real photograph, of Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher, so I guess Enright either started with the photo or wrote it in.

      I’m now an Offill convert – have you read either of her two previous books?

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      • Oh wow, I didn’t know that about the photo! I wouldn’t be surprised if it was one of Enright’s inspirations and sat above her desk while she was writing.

        I read Dept. of Speculation and didn’t enjoy it nearly as much — it’s in that same fragmentary, aphoristic style, but it’s a more familiar story of a woman discovering her husband has been cheating on her. I haven’t read her first novel (but I did read her children’s book about a sloth!).

        Are you getting a sense of what would be on your ideal shortlist and/or what you predict the judges will shortlist? I’m planning a cursory post about my Women’s Prize longlist / Reading Women catchup reading, but I haven’t been nearly as dedicated as you, Rachel or Callum. There have been some books I haven’t gotten on with and others I’m not interested in trying.

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        • Thanks, that’s helpful to know. I may give it a try. Love that she has written a kids’ book about a sloth!!

          Yeah, I’ve now read or am reading 15 out of the 16. The only one missing is the Mantel, and that’s a dead cert for both my shortlist and the actual shortlist. I don’t want to spoil my EXCITING ANNOUNCEMENT too much, but I think that Girl, Woman, Other and Weather are also pretty likely calls for the real shortlist, and will definitely be on mine. I 99% expect Hamnet to be shortlisted by the Prize as well, even though I probably won’t pick it.

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  3. Enright’s prose is certainly beautiful. I haven’t read any more of her work yet, so I’m intrigued to see how I get on with it! I don’t mind bleak fiction when it feels earned or balanced in some way, so hopefully I’ll gel with it like I did with Actress (which I felt was heartfelt and warm enough to counter the darker elements).

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  4. Great review! I have been following your reviews for awhile and I’m always startled by your very apt turns of phrase – your description of the “unleavened misery” in Actress will really stay with me, though I can agree that the quotes you’ve pulled from it are really quite good on a technical level.

    I‘ve read Weather and I thoroughly enjoyed it (if you can say that about a mostly bleak novel). The lines about “The time the dog’s muzzle went gray” also stayed with me – in that sense I think Offill is a master at illuminating larger realities in the smallest of details. I’m definitely rooting for it to be shortlisted.

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  5. I’ve never fancied Enright, and while Weather is obviously chiming with a lot of people, I don’t think I could – ha – weather it. That line about the dog’s muzzle had me welling up. Fortunately I am able to read the odd slightly challenging thing but nothing about End Times. I’m enjoying seeing you read your way through this list, though!

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  6. I tried reading Actress but stopped. It was actually lines like “I could not align my wanting” that threw me for a loop. That sentence on its own makes no sense to me, but the sentence directly after explains it beautifully. Then I ask what is the point of writing “I could not align my wanting” only to have to explain it. This was just my own hang up, and I know loads of readers complimented Enright’s prose but not her characters.

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    • Interesting – it makes sense to me but I’ve always thought that I tend to take in chunks of text rather than reading sentence by sentence, so perhaps that also helped.

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      • I really like this comment. Because I never have reason to think about how people process writing, I’d never thought of someone being patient (I’m not!) and reading beyond one sentence. Thank you so much, Laura! I’m going to fall down an internet rabbit hole searching out reading styles now. #NerdLife!

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              • I read about shallow (low-level) processing and deep (high-level) processing, which I knew about when I was teaching basic comp. The shallow reading is becoming more common due to our expectation that reading not take too long, thanks to the internet. The more we expose ourselves to shallow reading, the harder it is to do deep reading at all (it’s like a muscle).

                I also read about “buffering” while reading, which is how much information you hold in your head while reading one sentence. Here’s an excerpt:

                “To find phrase boundaries, we check individual word meaning and likelihood of word order, continually revise the meaning of the sentence, and so on, all while the buffer is growing.

                But holding words in memory until phrases complete has its own problems, even apart from sentences that deliberately confuse you. . .”

                I also thought this article about mental simulations unfolding was interesting: https://link.springer.com/article/10.3758/s13421-019-00928-2

                Liked by 1 person

  7. Great reviews! I’m glad to see you liked Weather better than I did- it did seem like a well-written book, I just couldn’t connect to the characters very well. I did read it before the pandemic though, and have seen several recent reviews that make me wonder whether I wouldn’t have fared better with it a month or so later…
    And I’m currently reading Actress! I’m not far enough to have much of an opinion yet, but I was struck immediately by how much I like the prose so I can agree on that count!

    Liked by 1 person

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