Anne Enright’s last novel was published to no fanfare at all (though some noticed it), and went on to win the Booker Prize. I liked The Gathering on balance – just about, I think – but my main issue with it was an unexpected one. Normally I would be dismissive of those who reject a book for not having likeable characters; with The Gathering, it wasn’t so much that I thought the narrator Veronica ridiculous and risible, but that I was fairly sure Enright didn’t intend her to be so. I hadn’t intended to read her next novel until I read wild praise for it from trustworthy sources.
The Forgotten Waltz, in other words, carried expectations both high and low. Perhaps the experience of The Gathering softened me up for it (I had better note that I couldn’t even finish the baroque sentences of Enright’s earlier novel The Pleasure of Eliza Lynch). Here the language is plainer, the character no less spiky, the result more purely pleasurable. This is not to say that Enright makes any concessions. Again she presents not a character or caricature but a real person, a real woman relating the tangle and contradictions of real life. She has no interest in charming the reader or attracting sympathy (though that is a disarming quality in itself).
The value of Enright’s writing is to take on the task of making the most hackneyed subject matter into a necessary work. She has written the story of a love affair. Partly what distinguishes it is its setting, around and after the Ireland’s great property crash of 2008 and beyond. The financial crisis, probably the biggest boom-to-bust in Europe after Iceland’s, affected families in Ireland as only money can, but for Enright it is reinforcing, not causative. Her narrator, Gina, an IT professional in her early 30s, is married to Conor (“The internet was made for Conor: the way he was always interested but could never settle on one thing”) when she meets Seán. Seán is much older and no looker – “not exactly a siren song” – but in the usual unexplainable way, gradually and then suddenly, they begin an affair. It is sexy but unromantic. After their first “adultery – I didn’t know what else to call it,” Gina feels “suicidal. Or the flip side of suicidal: I felt like I had killed my life, and no one was dead. On the contrary, we were all twice as alive.”
What else distinguishes this book? Scott Pack said “there really is no difference between this and the many volumes of ‘commercial women’s fiction’ that you see on sale in supermarkets and train stations.” If commercial women’s fiction is what we now call chicklit, I couldn’t disagree more. The Forgotten Waltz is the opposite of chicklit in that it brings news, it subverts expectations and does not give easy answers. In chicklit we know the formulas and the character types; here everything is made new. It is complex in its structure (Enright cites inspiration in Ford Madox Ford’s knotty The Good Soldier), though this complexity reduces to a very simple and beautiful effect. It is that each chapter (playfully named after romantic songs) seems to contain the entire affair, past and present, without making the time lines unfollowable. This can only come from an author who truly knows her subject and works the whole book to be steeped in it. Even when we think we know what the final status is – what’s happening in the ‘now’ of the narrative – we come to understand that there is no final status. Near the end Gina’s position seems to shift from consistent upheaval to one of tentative stability, merely threatened with upheaval – in other words, normal family life (if that is not an oxymoron).
The Forgotten Waltz is as much about family as The Gathering was. It highlights the contradictions of family and home life: the traditions and routines, the box it keeps us in which is also offers security, its status as a refuge or place of danger. Everyone in the book is acutely aware, as everyone in Ireland at the time was aware, of the financial and market status of their home. Gina always longed for a house with a sea view: “it didn’t seem a lot to ask – a house that would clean your life every time you looked out of it.” It would be facile to make the economic downturn into a metaphor for the turbulence of Gina’s love life (and one of the features of her story is its distinction between a love affair and love). Instead, the setting informs the characters – Irish people fixated with money and status, irrespective of their own level – and the characters inform the story. Some things, however, are universal. When Seán tells her she has “lovely skin, so soft,” Gina wonders, “Why did men need to persuade themselves? Why did they have to have you, and make you up at the same time?”
Bringing together the universal and the particular is Enright’s speciality, simultaneously bringing revelations of what other people are like while reassuring the reader that their own failings are normal. (Perhaps normal is not the word: usual, then.) “I wanted to sit where I was, and let time pass elsewhere. How do you do that?” asks Gina. How indeed? Meanwhile, one woman I know loved the book partly for the “the best portrayal I’ve ever read of a woman having an affair. I recognise it from the inside out.” By the same token, for me the book told me things I didn’t know. Gina, like Veronica in The Gathering, seems a cool, tough character. But any fictional creation as full and real as she is, must be by definition vulnerable, exposed, undefended because of everything she shares. Like the details of the property boom and bust or the involvement of Seán’s daughter (“the fact that a child was affected…”), Gina’s story is what it is. “Not pretty, but true.”