Fiction – hardcover; Jonathan Cape; 230 pages; 2011. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.
In the immediate afterglow of having read Anne Enright‘s The Forgotten Waltz way back in May, I was positive it would be at least longlisted for this year’s Booker prize. After all, she’d won it in 2007 — with her extraordinarily grim and disturbing The Gathering — and this one felt just as accomplished, passionate and lyrical, if not more so. But alas, it didn’t make the cut.
I found it to be one of those novels that totally engrossed me from start to finish. It revels in language — the sentences are languid one minute, biting the next and occasionally wry and always eloquent — and the circular plot, which begins where it ends, is completely absorbing.
The story is essentially about adultery, told from the other woman’s point of view, but it never strays into sentimentality, nor does it cast judgement. The first person narrator, Gina, is a 30-something IT professional, who lives in Dublin. She’s articulate and intelligent.
When the novel opens she is looking back on the affair she conducted with Seán, a married colleague she met years earlier at a barbecue hosted by her sister, during Ireland’s financial boom. She dissects events leading up to their secret relationship, and how, knowing it was wrong — she was married and in love with her husband Connor, “who wore too many clothes […] and farted hugely when he stood in the bathroom to pee” — still went ahead and did it anyway.
Gina is deeply flawed, but the beauty of The Forgotten Waltz is that she knows it — and is not afraid of self-analysis, without pity.
The outfall of their affair is cleverly drawn. Seán’s daughter, Evie, plays a key role — she witnesses their first kiss and claps with glee at the sight — because it makes the relationship real, in the sense it is no longer about two people, but three.
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.
The irony of this is that Gina embarked on the affair to escape the trappings of a normal suburban life in which her and Connor would be expected to buy a house and raise children. They had the house — “The place was going up by seventy-five euro a day” — but Gina found the mortgage terrifying. She doesn’t exactly state it, but I rather suspect that she found the prospect of children equally daunting. That she ends up in an adulterous relationship in which she comes second, not to Seán’s wife but to Seán’s child, seems iniquitous.
The book is set during the big freeze of 2009 — during which Ireland experienced uncharacteristic heavy snowfall and blizzard conditions — and it’s hard not to think of this as a metaphor for Gina’s life, cast out into the icy wilderness for daring to follow her heart and not her head.
At its most basic level, The Forgotten Waltz is about infidelity, but dig deeper and you’ll see it’s also about one woman navigating a complicated, messy life full of contradictions, tangled emotions and family loyalties. Above all, it is a very human tale about passion, secrets and lies.