I spent recent months reading plenty of novels by smart, young, cutting-edge writers; it was fun and invigorating. But now it feels appropriate to read a darker novel - about adultery and its consequences - by a seasoned author who knows the various pathways of the heart.
The Forgotten Waltz, set in and around Dublin, encompasses those incredible years of booming economic growth (the era of the Celtic Tiger) when Ireland, after all its centuries of being an impoverished outsider, finally became a player in the mad scramble for wealth that characterized the early years of the millennium. Gina Moynihan - a recently married career woman who feels she can have any kind of life, house, job or husband that she wants - falls in love with an older married man over a period of five years and infrequent encounters.
At first it is simply lust, drunken indulgence, meeting Seán Vallely in hotel rooms. The kissing is more transporting than the actual sex; the sneaking around more exciting than the man himself. And in what Gina suspects is an attempt by Seán's wife Aileen to check out the competition, she receives an invitation to the Vallely's annual New Year's Day party. Something about the encounter with her lover's wife and daughter Evie raises a dalliance into a full-blown affair. An almost innocent air of just fooling around becomes the messy business of adultery.
The novel begins in 2009, after all the dirty deeds have broken up the two marriages. Gina, who narrates her own tale, looks back in an effort to understand how she ended up living in her deceased mother's house with a man who now seems rather ordinary. She tells us, "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." And she's right. It doesn't all make sense - not even to the reader; Gina looks back over the past seven years like someone awaking from a dream or coming out of an obsession.
In the first sentence of the preface we learn that "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." In this almost-too-subtle hint that Evie is a central and important character, we also discover that there is something peculiar about the girl - but not until the very end do we find out what and why.
What did Gina want? What did Seán want? It is not entirely clear, but I found myself fascinated and puzzled by these questions - unable to stop thinking about them - until I had reached my own conclusions several hours after turning the last page. What appears to be a simple story of adultery certainly has a secret layer. In her Booker Prize-winning novel The Gathering, Anne Enright tells a dark and shameful family saga, and though The Forgotten Waltz is lighter, it is nonetheless a searing examination of Irish family life as it plays out in our fractured, contemporary world.
This review was originally published in October 2011, and has been updated for the April 2012 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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