The Forgotten Waltz, by Anne Enright, Jonathan Cape, RRP£16.99, 240 pages
Anne Enright is progressively widening her field of observation, and what a subtle, bitingly observant eye she has. Her early work examined the emotional landscapes of young women. Her 2007 Man Booker prizewinning The Gathering considered the emotional landscape of a troubled Irish family. The Forgotten Waltz illuminates both of these themes, but it further reflects on the emotional landscape of a whole country, Ireland, in the wake of its recent catastrophic economic crash. It is a novel about how it feels to be wrong, and to be left to deal with the consequences of that delusion.
It starts and ends with houses, fittingly enough. Gina Moynihan’s older sister is throwing a housewarming party. It is a summer’s day in 2002 in Enniskerry, an affluent, picturesque suburb, and these are the Dublin middle classes at home. Gina is 28 and jet-lagged from her Australian holiday. She is enjoying what she comes to regard in retrospect as her Chardonnay years. More sophisticated wines come later, but bring less joy. She is dying for a cigarette, but smoking is a taboo activity amongst these well-heeled suburbanite parents, and so she has to hide behind the children’s play shed. And this is where she lays eyes on Seán, a married man 15 years her senior.
Gina is in love with Conor, and she very likely would have stayed that way had the young couple not yielded to pressure to get on the property ladder – “Jesus, they wrung us till we squeaked. I can’t remember what this did to the love we were supposed to be in. I can’t recall the nights.” Both parties end up working so hard to service the debt that they pass on the stairs, little more. To add to the strain, they take out two car loans and get hitched.
Gina and Conor experience what they term “age rage” against the likes of Seán and his wife, because the older couple enjoys so much of the country’s wealth. Seán is a management consultant. He advises companies on restructuring (ie recommending “that you lose thirty per cent”). Gina’s marriage begins to flounder. Love needs nurturing, and the only thing the couple has the time to nurture is their mortgage. So when Gina encounters Seán a second time in 2005, there is “a copulatory crackle in the air”.
Seán engineers that Gina be invited to an overseas conference at which he is delivering a talk entitled, fittingly enough, “The Culture of Money”. They embark on a torrid and demeaning affair, which initially seems like a big game, “and neither of us thought there might come a moment when all the games would stop”. Not unlike the Irish property boom, the reader might speculate.
The novel begins with a prologue set in 2009 in which Gina expresses her concerns over potential damage her affair with Seán may have caused to his daughter, Evie. However, the novel focuses more on the damage done to Gina’s generation, the generation that has largely been landed with the bill for the crash, a generation which – for reasons no one has yet managed to explain – has remained peculiarly stoical about its fate.
The Gathering was an angry novel, but The Forgotten Waltz is ostensibly an acceptant one. And it has to be acceptant – otherwise it would not reflect the Irish condition. It would not comment on these strange times. Enright shrewdly leaves it to the reader to feel enraged. Gina is “the clever one”, and she makes for a gutsy, perceptive and terribly funny narrator. Her voice sparks with electricity. Which is why it is so saddening to watch it being subdued. She unquestioningly gives up everything for an older man who proves undeserving.
Why doesn’t Gina get angry? Why does she sacrifice the possibility of having children of her own to help raise Seán’s child, who already has a full-time mother? Why is one generation lying down for the needs of the generation that engineered the financial crisis? This is the six-million-dollar question.
In asking us to consider Gina’s predicament, Enright invites the reader to consider the larger predicament of what might become Ireland’s lost generation. In this regard – in forcing us to contemplate complex internal social dynamics – the novel most recalls JM Coetzee’s Disgrace. However, whereas white South Africans had much to feel guilty about, Gina Moynihan does not. And yet, like the rest of her generation, she uncomplainingly shoulders the burden.
A book that leaves the reader crying “why?” is undoubtedly a powerful one. Enright has produced an important novel, a portrait of a young state trapped in a punitive aftermath, and as such, it can be viewed as the first major work of literature to reflect on the Irish comedown. It is also that rare thing: the literary page turner. What is it about self-destruction that keeps you reading between your fingers until late into the night? Its portrait of an over-anxious mother will spark heated book-club debates on couches across the western world.
As is to be expected of Enright, The Forgotten Waltz is an acutely tender depiction of the complex familial bonds joining us, a delicate portrait of love, loss and hope, from a formidably talented writer.
Claire Kilroy is author of ‘All Names Have Been Changed’ (Faber)