If it hadn’t been for the child then none of this might have happened, but the fact that a child was involved made everything that much harder to forgive. Not that there is anything to forgive, of course, but 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.Those are the opening words to the preface to Anne Enright’s new novel, The Forgotten Waltz. The child is Evie, daughter of Sean, a girl both peculiar and special, and we learn a few paragraphs later that on New Year’s Day, 2007 “when she saw her father kissing me, in his own home — she laughed and flapped her hands. A shrill, unforgettable hoot.” And her mother called up the stairs to ask her what she was doing.
As I indicated in my previous post, I read this novel immediately after finishing Tessa Hadley’s The London Train and, from the start, it felt very much like I was reading a third part that continued Hadley’s duo. In the present tense of the novel, Gina, the narrator, has been living with Evie’s father for some time, looking back trying to figure how she got there. Also, as in Hadley’s book, we learn early on that Gina’s mother is beginning to go downhill, adding another element of tension:
That winter, Joan complained of swelling in her feet, which for our mother was a terrible comedown, the row of shoes she had, going back thirty years, all forsworn for Granny boots: she just hated it. She got supplements in the health food shop and complained of depression — she was, actually, depressed, I thought — and it never occured to her, or to any of us, to do anything about it except mope and talk on the phone about kitten heels and peppermint lotion and the various shades in which you might get support tights.
On the other hand, there is a crucial difference from the Hadley book (I promise that is my last reference to it until the end of this review) that is apparent early on. Gina is much more engaged with the world, although not very successfully, than either of Hadley’s narrators. Conor, her boyfried when the memories start and later to become her husband, has a Masters in multimedia — Gina herself is in the the IT world, using her talent with languages (“Not the romance languages, unfortunately, I do the beer countries, not the wine”) to work with European companies on their websites.
She first meets Sean, and the seeds of their affair are sewn even before her marriage, at a housewarming party thrown by her sister and her husband — the couple represent the success of the Celtic Tiger and it is a fancy place. He is standing at the end of their expansive garden, looking out at the coming sunset over the sea:
He is, for a moment, completely himself. He is about to turn around, but he does not know this yet. He will look around and see me as I see him and, after this, nothing will happen for many years. There is no reason why it should.
That last sentence, indeed, is the nub of the matter. Gina may be engaged with the world in her working life, but she is very much not in control of her personal one. It is apparent, even to her, that Sean is a distracted, selfish character, with a personality that is as remote as remote can be. Her eventual marriage to Conor comes about more as “let’s have a new experience” than an expression of commitment, so there is no anchor there. A one-night stand with Sean at a conference in Montreux should have been the end of him, but it wasn’t. Gina finds herself becoming increasingly obsessed with him — most of the time, his response is neutral at best but on occasion his selfishness turns into an interest.
It is not just in their relationship (“there is no reason why it should” happen, remember) that Gina and Sean lack initiative, let alone control, but also in two sets of circumstances that surround it. And it is these that Enright leverages to produce a fully-formed novel.
One is Evie, who looms as an influence throughout the book. Diagnosed with a form of epilepsy at age four, her natural mother responds with ever increasing demands on a medical system that can produce no satisfactory response. Sean is less openly aggressive in his response but has an even deeper emotional attachment to Evie (which he neither understands nor acknowledges). When he and Gina do get together, both Evie’s presence and his attachment to her become a barrier that cannot be scaled.
An equally uninfluencable barrier, particularly for those whose financial survival depends on the Celtic Tiger’s IT industry, is the collapse of an overheated economy. Enright takes an interesting approach to this (it comes into the book in the final third) as she never writes about it directly, but does introduce its damaging and unaddressable consequences. Just as one example, there is the situation with Gina’s mother’s house, which she and her sister inherit — she needs a good price so she and Sean can continue living in the style to which they have been accustomed:
Selling the house was still the answer to everything. We brought the price down from ‘two and a bit’ to ‘nearly two’ and it was still short odds on winning the lottery; it was five-hundred-and-seventy-five-thousand lamb chops, it was one-and-a-half-thousand years of lamb on your plate, it was so many shirts you would never have to wash another shirt, it was half of the townhouse in Clonskeagh and enough left over for a roof over our head, it was freedom and time to kiss, which is also called love.
But no one bought it.
It was sections like that that caused me to become more and more engaged with The Forgotten Waltz as the book went on. Both Gina and Sean are woefully incomplete — and at risk of becoming annoying — in the first half of the book, but it is hard not to develop some sympathy for them as even bigger crises (Evie, the collapse) come along which they are even more hapless at addressing. Not only did they not make a conscious choice to abandon their previous lives for each other, they now find themselves beset by forces in which they had even less choice and with absolutely no skills to cope with them.
That is why, for this reader at least, The Forgotten Waltz is a far better novel than The London Train. While the central characters in both books are shallow and passive, Enright introduces two external elements that add depth to hers — in the final sections of the book, it is hard not to start thinking that there are a lot of people in the real world who are paying an even bigger price than one would expect for their foolishness.
Enright’s Booker Prize-winning The Gathering had some similar circumstances in it involving external inevitability that made bad things worse. I did not like that book, but for me she is much more successful here. I suspect part of that is the very contemporary setting of this novel and its circumstances — most adults know a version of Gina and Sean whom the world is punishing more than seems reasonable for their weaknesses. It isn’t a cheery picture (I don’t think Enright does cheery) but it is an all too common one. Add to that Enright’s substantial prose skills and you have an entirely worthwhile book.