Facing up to truth and consequences

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 15 May, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 15 May, 2011, 12:00am


The Forgotten Waltz
by Anne Enright
Jonathan Cape HK$229

It's been four years since Irish author Anne Enright shot to global literary prominence with her 2007 Booker Prize-winning fourth novel, The Gathering. A bleak, sometimes darkly humorous novel about a dysfunctional Irish family, it is also a subtle portrait of a country that, as Enrights put it, 'was drowning in shame'.

Now with her fifth novel, The Forgotten Waltz, Enright examines Ireland's devastating economic crash through the lens of desire. A sharply observed page turner of a novel that unfolds with the immediacy and intimacy of a confidential chat with a close friend, The Forgotten Waltz begins as Gina Moynihan recalls the moment she first laid eyes on Sean Vallely, a married man 15 years her senior.

At first there is nothing remarkable about this man who she first glimpses tending to his daughter at the bottom of her sister's garden one sunny summer Iniskerry afternoon in 2002. Nothing to suggest that Gina's eventual longing for this man, her sister's neighbour, will wreak havoc and destruction on her comfortable middle-class life and that of those around her. Moreover, Sean has the added complication of a young daughter who suffers from epilepsy.

Looking back Gina can see that at this juncture, Vallely was 'just a little rip in the fabric of my life. I can stitch it all up again if he does not turn round'. But Sean does turn round and this fleeting moment, which takes place at her sister's barbecue years before the affair actually begins, is fused into Gina's memory as the moment when life as she knew it began to unravel.

And what an unravelling it is. All the more devastating and confounding because you can see it coming but Gina is blind to the signs. But there is simply no turning away from this tale, so brutal in its honesty, so precise in its detail, so subtle and seemingly effortless in its calibration. The story is seen through the prism of Gina's memory. As she looks back on these events on a snowy winter's day in 2009, there is a cinematic, almost gilded quality to that moment at her sister's housewarming barbecue, when she had just returned from a three week holiday in Australia with her boyfriend Conor, 'and was 'mad - just mad - into chardonnay'.'

Enright brings a lilting exactitude to Gina's memories, right down to the little fake plastic log house for the children and her sister Fiona, 'her cheeks a hectic pink, her eyes suddenly wet from the sheer la-la-lah of pouring wine and laughing gaily and being a beautiful mother forward slash hostess in her beautiful new house'.

For these cashed-up young members of Ireland's ambitious new generation are enjoying their newfound wealth to the hilt. Designer labels, smart houses, expensive holidays. Gina, who is into IT, 'sort of', and works with languages on the Web, relates events in chapters named after songs. Back then 'before our lives became a desolation of boredom, rage and all the rest of it' she was still in love with Conor Shiels, who is 'a happening geek' with a master's degree in multimedia, and 'whose heart was steady and whose body was so solid and so warm'.

They party hard, work hard, make love a lot, buy a house together, and calculate it is going up by 75 euros a day. 'Listen to the money,' he tells her, and she does. 'You could almost feel it, a pushing in the walls, the toaster would pop out fivers ...' They add on two car loans, get married and move into what she calls her 'Sauvignon Blanc years'. But 'mortgage love', as she calls it, takes its toll. 'Shagging at 5.3 per cent.'

So when they encounter Vallely and his wife and daughter again at her sister's beach house, there is, Gina recalls, 'a copulatory crackle in the air' despite the 'age rage' they experience at the couple's obvious wealth. Sean is a management consultant who advises companies on restructuring. He arranges for Gina to be invited to a week-long overseas conference where he is delivering a talk called, appropriately as it turns out, 'the culture of money'. What follows, after a somewhat tawdry hotel room encounter, Gina likens to a series of games 'and neither of us thought there might come a moment when the games would stop'.

Then comes the endless waiting for his phone calls. The furtive, somewhat desperate Friday night assignations. Her longing for Sean blinds her also to the looming economic collapse, the disintegration of her marriage, and even her mother's illness.

Enright, as she proved in The Gathering, is something of a magician when she writes about grief and family relationships and she gives full rein to her talent for wry, astute observations here. Indeed she deftly conjures the shadow of an older Ireland, as she writes of Gina's relationship with her father, and of her own with her sister.

But where Enright quite simply dazzles is in the way she succeeds in mapping the emotional landscape of not just desire, but of Ireland's recent boom and bust.

This novel shifts gears when Gina's recall of events meets up with the present moment on this snowy winter's day of 2009, where she is awaiting the arrival of Sean's fragile, somewhat troubled 12-year-old daughter Evie - the complication of this second life.

As the thrills of illicit sex give way to the strains of humdrum daily existence and the designer labels, high-flying jobs and overseas investments give way to redundancies and foreclosures, a sad gravitas, a sense of resignation even, settles, like the snow, over the novel. It begs questions too, of the nature of denial and who is to blame. But even then this provocative literary page-turner never loses its powerful, pulsing intimacy. Read it and marvel at its subtlety and intelligence.