Book Review | The Forgotten Waltz

Barbed and cynical, this modern romance by Booker Prize-winning author Anne Enright has Rose Lapira enthralled, despite its innate bitchiness.

Two years ago I attended a public reading by Irish author Anne Enright who came to Malta to talk about her latest novel, The Gathering. Enright is regarded as one of the most accomplished Irish prose stylists of her generation, and with this powerful novel on the theme of abuse and its consequences, she won the prestigious Man Booker Prize for Fiction 2007.

This has been followed by a lighter book The Forgotten Waltz, which is probably more accessible to a wider readership than her earlier work. Basically, this is a story about adultery, a theme common enough in novels. Two great literary characters that come to mind are Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary, the fate of both ending in tragedy.

Gina, the protagonist of the Forgotten Waltz, is a married career woman who begins an affair with Sean, a married man. She falls in love with him... and that's when her problems start. It's interesting to note that Enright is quoted as saying that whereas the heroines of the past ended dead in retribution for their infidelity, Gina discovers to her cost 'that love is a great punishment for desire'. This is an interesting enough premise for a love story.

This tale of adultery is told against the time of boom and crash in Ireland. Indirectly, Enright shows how the economic crash affected Dublin's smart professionals. One can detect an element of satire in descriptions of the trappings of affluence which surround her characters. Mockery is in the air, especially self-mockery in the case of Gina, the narrator.

One cannot help thinking that Enright, known for her impish humour, is also trying to take the mickey out of chick-lit, particularly in the first half of the book when Gina is repeatedly gushing about how wildly she has fallen in love with Sean. The chapters have headings suggestive of a romantic song, associated with female love (this was done before by Trezza Azzoppardi in The Song House with a different result).

The book's title, The Forgotten Waltz, comes from Franz Liszt. There is this swinging to and fro by Gina, often saying one thing and then contradicting herself, as well as being amnesiac on details at times, due to excessive boozing. When she tries to remember the first time she slept with Sean, she barely recalls that 'there was a lot of, I think, Alsace Riesling involved'. One gathers that Gina is a rather untrustworthy narrator.

Enright deliberately alienates us from liking her by giving her a rather unpleasant, even malicious sense of humour. She says cruel things about Sean's wife and about her sister Fiona. She dislikes her husband's parents and when her affair becomes public she simply dismisses them with 'I just can't believe it. That all you have to do is sleep with somebody and you never have to see your in-laws again. Ever pffft! Gone. It's the nearest thing to magic I have yet found'. If her remarks were not so cruel, they could be hilarious. At a party she notices 'a couple of women in the room had a confined look that Botox gives you, like you might be having an emotion but you couldn't remember which one'. The book abounds with many such asides.

The only sympathy that Gina feels is for Sean's daughter, about whom we know from the first line of the novel: 'If it hadn't been for the child then none of this would have happened', and for her mother. Daughter and mother are friends, and the description of her mother's death is surreal and touching.

Other characters are left blurred, including that of the husband and the lover.

This novel left me with mixed feelings. In her previous work - The Gathering - Enright had explored with intensity, tragic themes relating to a large Irish family, resulting in a complex and moving novel. In The Forgotten Waltz, she tries and succeeds in alienating the readers from the protagonist of the story, perhaps too much.

On one level, this can be read simply as a love story where the outcome is evident right from the start.

And yet coming from Anne Enright it is bound to be much more than that, for she is a terrific wordsmith and is brilliant with language. For that alone, this novel is worth reading.

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