Thursday, June 30, 2011
THE FORGOTTEN WALTZ by Anne Enright (2011) McClelland & Stewart, 230 pages
Having adored Enright's Booker Prize-winning THE GATHERING, I knew I'd be predisposed to like THE FORGOTTEN WALTZ. What I did not expect was to be startled at every turn by the visceral quality of her prose. I cannot remember the last time I was so physically and emotionally moved by a book. And, that response is not predicated on a first reading either, because as I was skimming back through its pages to select quotations for this post, I felt the same flutter in my stomach--a palpable yearning.
Set in a suburb of contemporary Dublin, THE FORGOTTEN WALTZ examines "the irreparable slip into longing that can change the course of our lives." In it, thirty-four-year-old Gina Moynihan tells us of her affair with "the love of her life," Sean Vallely, whom she met three years earlier, though saw for the first time several years before that at a garden party hosted by her sister Fiona. Recalling her initial awareness of Sean, she notes, "it's like I have to pull the whole planet around in my head to get to this garden, and this part of the afternoon and to this man, who is the stranger I sleep beside now." Gina holds you in the hollow of her hand as you bear mute witness to all of their encounters and makes you complicit as "you catch a stranger's eye, for a moment too long, and then you look away" and, like Gina, for the moment you are "just breathing out."
While they arrange their furtive and exciting trysts, both Gina and Sean carry on their married relationships with their spouses Conor and Aileen. About Conor, who remains intentionally a nebulous, essentially benign presence in the narrative, Gina admits, "We knew each other. Our real life was in some shared head space; our bodies were the places we used to play. Maybe that's what lovers should be--not these besotted, fuck-witted strangers that are myself and Sean, these actors in a bare room." Yet, in the end, Gina "ended up...not believing a single thing [Conor] did; thinking it was all gesture and expostulation, it was all air."
In losing herself to love and lust, Gina observes, "it was like I had gone to the edges of myself, and what was in the centre was anyone's guess," while Sean thrived on jealousy: "it was his comfort and company--call it ambition; it was his protection from the night." And yet. Even the idea of not being together through courting the notion of walking away from Sean is too much for her: "The pain I felt was so sudden and unexpected, it was like being shot. I looked down the length of myself, as if to share the news with my body, or to check that it was all still there."
In the beginning and the end it's all about a child: Sean's daughter Evie. After both of them have left their spouses and Gina holds Sean, "in the darkness" and tells him that life is about failure, "it has failure built in," Enright whips you back emotionally to the opening line of the novel: "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." Gina is capable of forgiving Sean, but I'm not so sure she is capable of forgiving herself. That open-ended ambiguity at the end of her tale where Gina realizes "whether her father stays with me or goes, I will lose this girl," is the true heartbreak of THE FORGOTTEN WALTZ.