The Forgotten Waltz by Anne Enright
April 24, 2012 § Leave a comment
The clues suggested I’d be wasting my time. A previous novel I hadn’t particularly enjoyed, a cover that didn’t appeal (the second one shown on this page), a title that didn’t convey the idea of challenging writing. If Anne Enright’s The Forgotten Waltz had not been shortlisted for the Orange Prize, I would almost certainly have ignored it, despite the fact that I like her writing in the LRB. And then I read the first paragraph:
If it hadn’t been for the child then none of this might have happened, but the fact that a child was involved made everything that much harder to forgive. Not that there is anything to forgive, of course, but the fact that a child was mixed up in it all made us feel that there was no going back; that it mattered. The fact that a child was affected meant we had to face ourselves properly, we had to follow through.
I closed the book to take another look at the cover, make sure I was reading the book I thought I was reading, and then went back to that last sentence. This is what I’ve been waiting for from the Orange Prize, I thought. In fact, it’s what I’m always waiting for in a novel—a tiny insight that makes you say yes, that’s exactly what it’s like.
That first delicious hint drew me in, the suggestion that the partners in adultery followed through not because of the overwhelming rightness of their love but because once the child was involved, the overwhelming rightness of their love could be the only justifiable reason for destroying her parents’ marriage and her stability. We all tend to assume that other people are the grown ups; that everyone else behaves in an adult fashion. But of course that’s not true: secretly we are all still waiting to grow up. That’s why the last sentence of the quoted paragraph is so perfect and so full of ambiguous tension: they had been behaving as if they could get away with something, but once a child was involved they had to act like grown ups and start believing in consequences. Something they had wanted to do might now become something they didn’t want to do, but were compelled to do.
The Forgotten Waltz is the story – self-consciously a story, as the narrator, Gina, reflects throughout on what she might be altering to make a better narrative or to make something fit with her conscience—of an affair. Gina even calls Seán the love of her life while constantly undermining (and underlining) this assertion. The writing is lively and witty, without using humour as a way of distancing the characters from emotion. Gina’s voice is wry and frank, cynical yet not deadened, as Enright charts the affair from the high drama of lust and secrecy to the quiet tragedy of responsibility.
I do have some reservations about The Forgotten Waltz. It’s not a lengthy novel, at 225-ish pages, but towards the end I did start to feel that something else needed to happen along with the wrapping up (although in some ways the whole novel is a wrapping up). The affair is set in the Irish housing bubble and subsequent bursting of it, and more could have come of this by making Gina and Seán’s relationship itself fully contingent on the sale of a suddenly and massively devalued house. Gina also dips occasionally into caricature—the white-wine-drinking female professional in a man’s world—and I wondered whether Enright had never quite made up her mind whether she liked Gina or instead despised her and the rest of her circle for their consumerism, the way they measure everything in terms of cash (the house Gina buys with her husband Conor “was going up by about seventy-five euro a day”), and their constant assessment of their status. An author disliking a character isn’t necessarily a problem, but an author’s ambiguity can produce an uneven semi-empathy that startles readers when it is snatched back.
These points aside, The Forgotten Waltz is exactly the sort of thing that prizes ought to reward: intelligent, strong and confident writing; something that investigates, with grace and a killing sharpness, just what it means to be fallibly human. Enright has a wonderful voice and the ability to create a tight, smart story one sentence at a time. There’s been a lot of discussion about whether she is literary or not. I tend towards the yes camp (after all, there are all kinds of similarities with Hanif Kureishi’s Intimacy—packaging excepted–not least being the astonishing grasp of the selfish single-mindedness of people who want something they are not supposed to want): literary overlapping with upmarket mainstream . Or is that just hedging my bets?