Reading Ireland: Anne Enright’s The Forgotten Waltz

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I’ve been circling this book for the past few days, trying to decide why I found it so fascinating. Above all, it is certainly the writing. The writing! Truly, sometimes I found it so beautiful, it almost took my breath away. It is nuanced and sharp, and it often says much with very few words.

On Saturday night I cracked open a bottle of wine and we watched ‘The Wire’ on box set, and after we drank another bottle, despite which I was numb, in his arms, with the thought of all I had lost: the movement of his hand was just a movement, his tongue was an actual tongue. I had killed it; my best thing. The guilt, when it finally hit, was astonishing.

In contrast to the language, the characters are anything but beautiful. The guilt the narrator, Gina, talks about is caused by the affair she is having. She is cheating on her husband with Seán, a married man and father. Unlike in many other stories, Gina is not the wronged party. She is the one doing the wrong. I wouldn’t like her all that much if she didn’t have such a way with words. She told me many intimate details, and I knew many of her thoughts and emotions, yet I never felt close to her. She spoke of passion, but she never struck me as particularly passionate. She kept repeating herself, revisiting memories she had already told me about, seemingly without adding to them. All these odd contrasts made me constantly want more; I couldn’t stop reading.

Gina’s great love, Seán, is equally hard to pin down. Gina herself keeps saying that he has a way that tricks people into finding him interesting. I certainly couldn’t see what Gina saw in him; I think he is a scumbag, really. Gina is the second woman he has an affair with. He is demeaning and doesn’t seem especially caring. He once put in writing that Gina should hold a “secondary position” at the company she is working for. It is possible that the only reason he finally leaves his wife was money. I can’t be sure because even Gina doesn’t know exactly whether Seán’s job is profitable.

While the two first met during Ireland’s economic boom—when seemingly everyone bought second homes with a view of the ocean—they finally move in together when the boom is over. All those houses are now on the market.

Myself and Seán have loved a whole litter of
For Sale signs into being.

But there are no buyers in sight. And in addition to financial difficulties, there is also Seán’s 11-year-old daughter Evie. Gina knows that she will never be able to compete with the special bond between father and daughter and that she will never be anything like a mother to Evie.

It was September. The house had been on the market exactly a year. If you listened to the car radio, all the money in the country had just evaporated, you could almost see it, rising off the rooftops like steam. And there she was, this cuckoo, sitting in my kitchen; the price I had to pay for love.

With Evie, Gina gets “all the stupid stuff and none of the cuddles.” As an outsider, Gina is able to see things that Seán would never notice, for example, Evie’s manipulation of him. But again, I couldn’t be sure that what Gina was saying was true. A lot of it struck me as believable, as something that a non-parent would notice. But Gina admits that she can’t be objective, and there was just enough uncertainty in what she was saying to reject it as something borne of jealousy. Again, there are so many contrasts here that I can’t stop thinking about the characters. To me, that is the sign of a great book.

The end is left wide open. There is no indication of whether Gina and Seán will be happy together. Maybe these two imperfect people are perfect for each other. But to me, it is just as likely that they will not make it as a couple. And while Seán finally trusts Gina enough to have her pick up Evie at the bus stop, I have no idea whether the two will ever be close.

I say, “I know it’s hard about your parents, Evie.”

She does not reply.

“I just think, it was going to happen one way or another. I mean it could have been anyone, you know?”

She slides on; one scraping step after the other.

“But it wasn’t,” she says.

I can’t quite see her face.

“It was you.”

The Forgotten Waltz was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2012. I read it for Reading Ireland, hosted by Cathy at 746 Books and Niall at The Fluff is Raging.

RIM

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21 comments

  1. Wow! I’m glad you enjoyed this, but it does not sound like my thing. I don’t love the writing snippets you shared; the main character and her love interest sound like horrible, unrelatable people; and it sounds very depressing overall. I enjoyed your review, but I think I’ll pass on this one 🙂

  2. Oh Anne Enright, she is such a wonderful writer. I should try her newer stuff. I do love characters that are complex and not necessarily psoitive in their choices and behaviour, so this one sounds really good to me. I can just imagine that this one is difficult in content but beautiful too.

  3. Wait, so the lady says to the girl that her parents were going to split up one way or another??? What a cold thing to say! It sounds to me like the girl is the one character I would trust. This book has me perplexed!

    • It had me perplexed, too. I really couldn’t decide what exactly was so fascinating about this book (other than the writing). I found the characters rather cold, but yet I couldn’t turn away from them.

  4. Mixed reviews about this book….that’s always a good sign.
    Some identify with a character
    some with the theme
    some with the style of writing…
    Whatever the reason…at least Ann Enright has people talking!

  5. It’s really interesting to read your review of this novel, TJ, as I’ve got a bit of a confession coming up, I read this novel a while ago, but I’ve been keeping quiet as I didn’t particularly enjoy it. The writing is very sharp, I completely agree with you on that score, but something about this book got under my skin (in an fairly unpleasant way). I still can’t decide whether I simply read it at the wrong time, or whether Enright (or this Enright) just wasn’t for me. Part of the problem was down to my response to the central characters. With the possible exception of Evie, I didn’t care about any of them. I know I’m getting desperately close to saying that I didn’t like a book because it’s full of unlikeable characters, but I found it difficult to feel any connection to them. And the more I thought about the novel, the more it annoyed me…

    Anyway, rant over! Your review has given me pause for thought – it’s interesting to see that you never felt close to Gina despite the insights into her thoughts and emotions. Maybe I should try to go back to it at some point (or try another of hers).

    • I am not at all surprised to hear that you didn’t like it. Opinions of this book seem to be either really positive or really negative, and I can see how this is not for everyone. I was actually surprised that I liked a book despite there being so many unlikeable characters. What’s interesting is that I read some of the positive reviews and wondered how those readers came to their opinions, because I didn’t see what they saw. One reviewer for example said that she felt the passion sizzle between Gina and Sean. I didn’t see any passion, and their clandestine meetings all felt forced to me. So maybe the intriguing aspect is that it provokes such different emotions in each reader. I’m curious to read more of her books, though, to see how they compare.

  6. I have this one on the shelf, so great to read your review as a reminder to pick it up, I remember it being a little controversial with some readers, I’m glad to hear the writing continues to set her work apart, good to see her latest work on the Baileys Prize longlist.

    • You’re right, the reviews are either good or bad. I haven’t seen many that are in the middle. I was actually surprised that I liked it so much. I’m curious to see if she makes it onto the Baileys Prize shortlist again this year.

  7. Yes, this one has gone on my list. 🙂
    I like the way you talk about not being able to pin down what was keeping you glued to the page. I felt the same way about Ledger of the Open Hand (and a lot of good books, actually). Sometimes it’s really hard to explain why they’re so good. They just are. And, yeah, it’s probably mostly to do with a good writer – they can make anything mesmerizing.
    Gina and Sean don’t sound like very nice people. I feel sorry for the girl.

    • You know, I probably wouldn’t like any of the characters in this book much if I met them in person. And if you just gave me the plot of the novel (not the marketing blurb), I would probably pass on it. So I was really surprised by how much I liked it. The writing was definitely a part of it. Just because of that I am planning to read more Enright, at some point…

  8. Great review! So many excellent books showing up for the Reading Ireland event – this seems like yet another that may have to make it’s way onto my list…

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