Tuesday 23 January 2018

Review: The Forgotten Waltz by Anne Enright

Jonathan Cape, €19.99

PERCIPIENT: Anne Enright
observes minutiae of life
PERCIPIENT: Anne Enright observes minutiae of life

Emer O'Kelly

To read Anne Enright is to be glad that she is not watching you. If she were, every turn of a page, every brush of the hand to push back a strand of hair would be redolent of meaning.

The silent reader on the sofa might not be aware of the meaning; but for Enright, watching, calculating, playing with the scalpel she will use to carve words out of the skin, everything is a revelation. She knows us better than we know ourselves, almost a Jove-like figure sitting in judgement on our idiosyncrasies and weaknesses, sometimes chortling at our vulnerability, but seldom out of sympathy with it. Indeed, even in her latest novel, there are lightning sequences in the distance, the weapon of Jove, which enhance the imagery, as Gina, her central and intensely "I" character awaits cataclysm and vengeance.

Because this is the story of a love affair: an adulterous love affair which Enright in her role as Jove sees through to an inevitably disastrous end. Her characters are not consumed with guilt: they live in the 21st Century where "such things happen". But the destruction hovers beyond the end pages. When Gina, who works successfully in IT consultancy, first meets Sean, older and even more successful in the same field, they apparently barely notice each other. It is a summer day, and Sean is one of the guests at a party in Gina's sister's garden, absorbed in caring for his slightly "strange" small daughter. Such preoccupations are beyond Gina's ken: unmarried and revelling in a comfortably torrid relationship with chunky Conor, she is slightly contemptuous of the restrictive bonds of marriage.

It is 2002. And when we reach the enticing and repellent blank of the inevitable future, Enright has brought us to the still, hidden, frozen winter of 2009, when Gina sits alone in the house in Terenure where she grew up. She is suspended, living in a nothingness of desire and weariness. The house is not even her own: she is virtually squatting as she and her sister, the perfectly married Fiona, try to sell it after their mother's death, the property market as frozen as the city. Gina's marriage, entered into as a slightly thoughtless inevitability, is over.

Chunky Conor is bereft, alone in the house in Clonskeagh where the mortgage almost smothered them as a couple. Sean is an uneasy presence, possibly living more in Gina's mind than her heart ,although they are now giving the appearance of living together.

Their torrid affair began several years after that first sighting in Enniskerry, but Gina dates it from that moment when he might never have caught her eye. The reality began in the usual way of things: a conference in Montreux which they both attended, a lot of alcohol, and the indiscretions of such three-day cocoons. And afterwards Sean ignored her, a piece of sexual bad manners that unaccountably, she found herself able to forgive.

And both their "perfect" lives continued, Sean's in Enniskerry with his designer-clad wife Aileen and their beautiful, epileptic little daughter Evie, Gina's in slightly frenetic coupledom with Conor, their successful lives meeting only in the bedroom.

But in between there are the all-consuming Fridays with Sean, in hotel rooms close to the airport where they try desperately not to get to know each other, to keep it sexual. But they fall in love, agonisingly so.

And on this still, frozen afternoon in the winter of 2009, as Gina waits in Terenure for the arrival of Evie, now a frequent presence in her life, the all-consuming "difference" of the youngster has become the talisman that rules her own life as much as it has always ruled Sean's, as much as it has been a weapon for the child's mother.

She thinks of the shopping trips, of the attempts to enter the pre-teen world, the absorption of attempting to normalise her relationship with Sean through the eyes of the child. She thinks of all the silent near-apologies for her presence, of the time when she and Sean actually did split up, only to have her own traumatised heart betray her.

And she shuts out the imperfections of a love affair in which she wakes up alone each morning, her supposed life-companion missing because he has returned to the house where his wife lives, to be there when she wakes ... because Evie needs her parents. And she remembers her thoughts on the day she attempted to end the affair, driving away alone after a weekend in Sligo, only to realise "by the time I reached Mullingar that if I did not see him soon again I would surely die".

Enright suspends us in this world of palpitating desire, engulfs us in it, pouring the hideously, perfectly observed minutiae of daily life down the pit after us, to bury us in the exquisiteness of her prose, writing that now lost world of the "Prosperous Decade" with the devastating skill of a medieval monk illuminating a manuscript. You end up wondering how anything so cruel can also be so beautiful.

And even more lies beyond the final words: because Gina is recalling in the winter stillness, ice obscuring the windows, roads rutted and swooshing softly beneath wheels, sloping down to ice-gleaming furrowed gutters. And the silence will be broken when Evie arrives, the girl who, when Gina tried finally to apologise for the break-up of her parents' marriage, suggesting that "it could have been anyone", replied: "But it wasn't. It was you." And that terrible tentacle of hatred is what lies beyond The Forgotten Waltz.

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