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52 Books #17: The Forgotten Waltz

May 7, 2011

Of all the last dozen or so Booker Prize winners, from Aravind Adiga to Alan Hollinghurst, it’s Anne Enright I’ve felt most able to get behind. I was already a fan of her work before she won the award in 2007; that book, The Gathering, remains one of the finest, most moving books I can remember reading in recent years, a book which I read at such a time that it not only expressed what I was feeling at the time, but on occasions seemed to address me directly. (Part of the reason I don’t often re-read books is that old impossibility of stepping into the same river twice: I couldn’t bear to re-read something I’d found momentous first time round only to find it hollow-seeming. Refusing to re-read books is a form of self-preservation.)

And so to The Forgotten Waltz (Jonathan Cape), that most unforgiving of things, the novel-after-the-Booker. This is a less intense book by far that its predecessor, which at first gives the illusion that it’s a slighter one too. We’re in Dublin, at a time when houses regularly sell for “two and a bit” (no-one can say millions for fear of grinning too much), everyone judges everyone else on what designer labels they’re wearing, when people customarily have more than one ‘second home’ somewhere sunny abroad. Collapse is imminent, and Enright pins the story of a broken marriage and a new relationship to the macro-story of a country that sees its assets evaporating, houses shedding thousands of euro worth of value in the time it takes two people to kiss.

This is the story of Gina Moynihan’s breakup with her goodnatured husband Conor after she meets Seán, a neighbour’s boyfriend. An affair ensues — conducted in the bedrooms of that hoariest of structures, the business hotel — and the three phases of the book move through the affair’s kindling, consummation and eventual disintegration. Seán comes with baggage: not just his partner, but their daughter, Evie, who suffers a form of epilepsy — Enright is properly vague on the exact diagnosis: what we do see of Evie’s seizures and suffering is lethal enough without going into specifics. (Maybe this is the reason, too, for the appalling cover: a horribly literal interpretation of the ‘romantic spark’, or an allusion toi Evie’s brainstorms?)

As the book gathers pace — the accretion of designer-label details and the chattiness of narrator Gina’s tone failing, at length, to mask the arresting unpleasantness of her character — its focus shifts. I don’t mean it as a slight to the first two-thirds that it’s in the final section that The Forgotten Waltz really takes off; up until then it’s a familiar story well-told, with all the insight, wit and wisdom that Enright has shown in previous work (though I felt I detected a slight ironic distance, more so than in The Gathering, in the novel’s deployment of Issey Miyake dresses and Justin Timberlake singles as indicators of affluent Irish life in the early-mid-2000s). The final section sees Gina confront Evie, in a sequence which seems belatedly have a danger and spark missing from what’s gone before. By now Gina’s headlong romance with Seán has foundered, and in Evie she finds confidant and nemesis. It takes a while for The Forgotten Waltz to reach full intensity, but when it does it’s breathtaking.

Other reading in Week #17:

Edmund de Waal The Hare with Amber Eyes (Vintage)

Jo Shapcott Of Mutability (Faber)

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