If only the word ‘waltz’ appeared like a stain on the sheets — this would be the perfect cover image.
For now, Gina Moynihan stands back and looks at the bed that she and Seán Vallely shared, and it’s a messy sight. Messy, but still fresh: you can see the indents and folds in the fabrics.
One might say that Gina and Seán should have known that having an affair when they were both married would be messy.
One might say that Gina is 34 years old, old enough to know better. Gina might say that too, to herself, anyhow.
“Anyway. Before our lives became a desolation of boredom, rage and betrayal, I loved Seán. I mean, Conor.
Before our lives became a desolation of boredom, rage and all the rest of it, I loved Conor Shiels, whose heart was steady, and whose body was so solid and warm.”
And that’s what The Forgotten Waltz is all about: Gina’s perspective.
This will not suit every reader. Even in that short passage, there is repetition and confusion.
Being inside Gina’s head and heart is not the inviting, clean-sheeted bed in the cover photo.
It’s more like trying to get comfy in an armchair with a blanket pulled from the back of the car, rough and a bit smelly.
But Anne Enright’s work is impeccable.
In those seemingly messy and confused sentences, there is so much revealed.
Gina is able to name the betrayal, but then she chooses to allow the boredom and rage to take centre stage.
She can only think about loving Seán, really; it comes first, though mixed with thoughts of betrayal. (Perhaps this is because she was betraying her marriage by being with Seán, but perhaps also because she felt she was betraying her love for Seán by remaining in her marriage, when it was all boredom and rage. It’s messy, right?)
Still, the rational side of her knows that she once loved Conor, and that she believed him deserving of that love. But Conor is a correction, an afterthought.
Not only must Conor be deliberately inserted into that paragraph, but his appearances in the novel are equally formal, viewed from a distance, sharply focussed and unnatural.
And not always flattering either. Gina might settle with steady-solid-warm as a summary in some aspects, but she is not wearing her rose-coloured glasses when she looks back to her married years.
For instance, there are distinct advantages to not having to deal with her mother-in-law, and the sharp humour with which she observes that kind of thing might ruffle some readers’ feathers.
“I can’t believe I am free of all that. I just can’t believe it. That all you have to do is sleep with somebody and get caught and you never have to see your in-laws again. Ever. Pfffft! Gone. It’s the nearest thing to magic I have yet found.”
Of course it’s not just the writing style, or the edge of the humour that will provoke resistance or revulsion. The story of an adulterous love is not confined to this suburb of Dublin (Terenure) in the winter of 2009; it’s a story that many readers already know, personally.
By its very nature, Anne Enright’s novel will inevitably irk some readers beyond the page. Those who identify inherently and solely with the steady, solid and warm party. Those who are irretrievably offended by the idea of steady-warm-solid being overlooked. Those readers who are personally affronted by the mere idea of Gina’s character being at the centre of a narrative.
The Forgotten Waltz is not written with these readers in mind.
This is the kind of narrative that is concerned with unravelling. So perhaps it can only appeal to those who have once experienced or observed such unravelling. Those who are undeniably curious about what happens when steady-warm-solid is no longer enough. Those who want to understand what drives us to make decisions that will be messy. Those readers who are perhaps damaged in some ways themselves but are living a life in which they are the centre of their own narrative.
Perhaps what is most disturbing about the novel is the way that the banality is captured.
“And though this seems hard to believe, I returned to my Dublin life as though nothing had happened; as though the lake, the mountains, the whole of Switzerland, was a lie someone had told, to keep the rest of the world amused.”
Or perhaps it is the acceptance of paradox, the admission that the most secure things can also be the most fragile, that opposite statements can hold equal amounts of truth.
“Every normal thing he said reminded me that we were not normal. That we were only normal for the twelve by fourteen of a hotel room. Outside, in the open air, we would evaporate.”
Those things are disturbing. They are meant to be disturbing. Sometimes in an in-your-face way. For sometimes Gina really does spill it. And it’s simply upsetting. But sometimes it’s subtly unsettling. And it nags you from within.
“He was wearing his black suit – too tight on him, no – his only suit, the one he had been married in. Same church, same porch, a little later in the year; the fallen cherry blossom now drifted against the steps and turning brown.”
Marriages and funerals: they are more alike than most of us care to consider. And the fabric is always stained, whether it shows in the cover photo or not.
If you are the kind of reader who prefers their linens bleached and their fiction tidy, The Forgotten Waltz may not appeal, but Anne Enright understands that even if you make a bed perfectly, it all gets messed up in one good night’s sleep.
ORANGE Prize Nominee 2012: Book 6 of 20
Anne Enright’s The Forgotten Waltz
Originality Adultery isn’t an original plotline, but an insulated perspective is less common.
Readability Inward and backward musings are circular and spirally by nature.
Author’s voice Damaged, uncertain, a cacophony of emotions.
Narrative structure Rooted in memory, viewed from a foggy-headed present.
Gaffes None spotted.
Expectations The Gathering won the Booker Prize, reputation for literary quality.