Saturday 3 December 2016

Review: The Forgotten Waltz by Anne Enright

Jonathan Cape, €19.99, Hardback

Published 23/04/2011 | 05:00

Anne Enright's last novel, The Gathering, won her the most covetable prize of them all, the Booker. She has, therefore, a good deal to live up to in her latest, The Forgotten Waltz, her first novel since that triumph in 2007.

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In the new novel Enright superbly captures the dying days of the Celtic Tiger and explodes any illusion left about the supposed inherent decency of Ireland's egotistical middle classes. It is not the first novel to expose the greed, folly and myopia underlying the Irish-style tat and bling of the boom years here: Paul Murray's Skippy Dies and Peter Cunningham's Capital Sins got there already. But with her inimitable eye for clever detail, Enright conducts a tribunal of her own on our impatience with reality, stamping it with her caustic humour and her deep understanding of human nature.

Enright's characters are consummate spinners of yarns, and none more so than Gina Moynahan and her affluent set in The Forgotten Waltz. Movers and shakers of the boom, they inhabit a kind of Second Life (for the uninitiated that's a virtual game world on the web, where players socialise, connect and create their own fictions).

Gina works in one of those trendy communications firms -- Enright's set piece on the surreal workplace is brilliantly observed. She marries techie Conor who's dull, decent and successful, and whose worst fault is his affair with his mobile phone. Theirs is a case of mortgage love and happenstance, but it soon becomes, Gina says, "a desolation of boredom, rage and despair". She cannot be bothered mapping the decline of the relationship: "there is nothing more sordid, if you ask me, than the details."

Gina sets her sights on her sister's neighbour, the less virtual and virtuous Seán, husband of Aileen ('Missus Issy Miyake'), and father of two. Why? Gina believes everyone -- that is, her beautiful sister Fiona and Aileen -- wants Seán to want them. But Gina bags him, and they embark on a Sex and the City-type affair conducted at conferences abroad, at 'motivational golfing weekends', and at the Gresham and the Clarion. Seán has a past, and a complex relationship with his wife Aileen and daughter Evie, who may -- or may not -- have suffered brain damage after a fall.

As the story progresses against the backdrop of the economic collapse, to which Gina seems impervious, it becomes clear that the eternal triangle comprises Gina, Seán and daughter Evie; husband Conor has been discarded like last year's Louboutins and Aileen relegated to perfect domesticity in Enniskerry. Almost as an aside, Gina reports on her mother's illness and death, and it seems they hardly impinge on her consciousness.

Gina loves Seán, she assures us repeatedly. But what are we to believe? Every detail of the stories that she constructs about the pair and that he reveals about himself is provisional. Their accounts are not so much unreliable as manufactured out of the raw material of reality. Gina produces scenarios as if for a management presentation. The nearest she is to honesty is when she concedes her jealousy of Seán and Evie's father-daughter relationship. So many people, so many 'strategies' for communicating, so little connectedness.

While Enright's characters take refuge in self-delusion and lies, Enright's tale is brutally honest and covertly skilful when it comes to portraying them. She succeeds in showing how Gina's jealousies and callousness cloak her self-loathing. It becomes apparent that Gina's all-too-obvious deceits and sleight of hand are desperate attempts to stave off self-hatred.

Enright, the writer whose memoir of pregnancy and birth, Making Babies, garnered much praise for its exploration of the pleasure and pain of intimacy, can tell us plenty about intimacy's absence.

The Forgotten Waltz, teeming with credible characters that are difficult to empathise with (this is Enright's forte), forces us to look in the mirror. It reveals human beings as capable of empathy, but not empathetic; capable of self-awareness, but constantly fleeing from it. It is a discomfiting public examination of conscience, an exposé of our national shortcomings so recently in the limelight.

Mary Shine Thompson recently retired as dean at St Patrick's College Drumcondra, a college of Dublin City University

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