In her 2007 Man Booker Prize-winner, The Gathering, Irish novelist Anne Enright took a well-worn plot — a death in the family — and transformed it through unflinching, often dazzling prose into a searing examination of family, memory and grief. Her new novel, The Forgotten Waltz, affects a similar alchemy with another classic standby theme — the extramarital affair. In it, Enright manages to turn her narrator's troubled, life-changing infidelity into a sort of extended metaphor for Ireland's spectacular recent boom and bust.
As in The Gathering, Enright's narrator is unsparing in her depiction of both those around her and herself. With her present unsettled and her future uncertain, 34-year-old Gina Moynihan casts her mind back over the five years since she met Sean Vallely, "the stranger I sleep beside now." When she was first drawn to this oddly magnetic older man back in 2002 in her sister's garden in Enniskerry, he had two homes, a wife and a young daughter already diagnosed with what Gina would later learn was epilepsy. She was about to marry dull but stalwart Conor Shiels, "whose heart was steady, and whose body was so solid and warm." Despite the "copulatory crackle in the air" the next time Gina and Sean meet, it's still another year before they "did the bold thing" and "fitted together our jigsaw love." Their affair, more compulsive than joyous — like Ireland's over-mortgaged building boom — eventually "loved a whole litter of For Sale signs into being. And no one is about to buy anything."
Enright's narrative dances between chapters headed by evocative song lyrics, each familiar enough to suggest the succeeding line — "Toora Loora Loora" ("that's an Irish lullaby"); "Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye" ("I cry a little"); "How Can I Be Sure" ("in a world that's constantly changing"); "Stop! In the Name of Love" ("before you break my heart"). But although some of its paces are as well-known as the classic three-step — Gina reduced to waiting by the phone, Gina's resentment at playing second fiddle, first to Sean's wife and then to his daughter — her story follows the meandering, sometimes disjointed path of memory despite the clarifying benefit of hindsight: "Still, I can't be too bothered here, with chronology. The idea that if you tell it, one thing after another, then everything will make sense. It doesn't make sense."
What rescues all this from banality is not so much the plangency of Gina's situation as the pungency of her tart observations, about both the unpredictability of attraction and "The Culture of Money" on which Sean speaks at a Swiss conference they both attend. A New Year's Day celebration at the Vallely's "was the kind of party where no one ate the chicken skin" and "everyone over 40 wants you to know about their second house." After skewering her mother-in-law, "all set to use us for her Dublin shopping base," she comments with corrosive wit, "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."
Nothing else works out with quite such ease in this book about the often uncontrollable forces that drive us, even against our better judgement, into mayhem, bursting both our familial and economic bubbles.