The Forgotten Waltz
Jonathan Cape, 240pp, £16.99
“Hindsight is a wonderful thing," says Gina Moynihan, the narrator of Anne Enright's fifth novel. But it can be a treacherous and ungovernable thing, too, providing the illusion of wisdom about events and circumstances that are, by definition, no longer present to us. Gina knows this. Not only is she constantly hedging her account, but she is perfectly attuned to the tricks that hindsight plays. After recounting the start of her affair, adulterous on both sides, with "the love of my life", Seán Vallely, she says that "perhaps this is not how it was . . . I might be imposing the lover I now know on the memory of the man I slept with then." Even the title of the novel hints at her mixture of fallibility and self-awareness; in a first-person narrative, a forgotten thing must be acknowledged as forgotten.
New Year's Day 2007 was not the first time Gina (born 1974) kissed Seán (born 1957), but that is how she thinks of it. As for the first time she saw him, this is something to be constructed, piece by piece: "I met him in my sister's garden in Enniskerry . . . There was nothing fated about it, though I add in the late summer light and the view . . . It is half past five on a Wicklow summer Sunday when I see Seán for the first time." This is also the first time she gives his name; it's almost as if that has been added in, too.
Most of this umming and ahhing comes in the remarkable opening section, which takes up more than half the book. Afterwards, unfortunately, things are never quite the same. The second and third sections, which seem to state what was earlier implied, felt, to this reader, underpowered and even unnecessary, after the 117 impudent and imaginative pages Gina spends recalling, or trying to recall, or confessing that she might have misrecalled, the details of an affair that ended two marriages - what she sportingly calls "the story I tell myself about Seán".
The opening section is also notable for its glimpses of the last days of the Celtic Tiger, when Gina's job was enlivened by the collision of IT and the EU, and when the house she owned with her husband, Connor, "a happening geek", was appreciating at "about five cents a minute", and her brother-in-law Shay was "coining it", and the eyes of her sister Fiona were "suddenly wet from the sheer la-la-lah of pouring wine and laughing gaily and being a beautiful mother forward slash hostess in her beautiful new house".
Gina may not be able to remember what she saw or said or did during this period, but she can remember what Seán's wife was wearing on New Year's Day 2007 - "a black Issey Miyake pleats dress edged with turquoise". At such moments, it is difficult to determine whether Enright's presentation of Gina's memory is inconsistent, or whether Gina just has her own priorities. Earlier on, when talking about her affair with Seán, Gina refuses to tell the reader "who put what where" - an omission which, being apparently voluntary, neither adds to nor subtracts from a sense of the vividness of her somatic or sensual memory. It is quite plausible that she is by turns tell-all and coy, but if she has a habit of forgetting the essential while retaining the incidental (or sartorial), this ought to be more lucidly patterned, or emotionally logical.
Yet the fleeting confusions of Gina's monologue are irrelevant next to her creator's amazing ability to engage in lyric flights while keeping her feet on the ground, her way of returning to certain intimate details and of making jumpy little jokes, her habit of using colloquial phrasing to moor Grand Statements, and her rushing, exquisitely turned perceptions.
There is a good deal less of this, and a good deal more of somewhat irritating habits, in the final hundred pages, over which Gina, lying alone on the ice-cold morning of 5 February 2009, explains the (symbolically linked) consequences of giddy and carefree 2007. These include the economic bust, the inheritance of her mother's house and, most intriguingly, the occasional presence of Seán's subtly shrewd 11-year-old daughter, who suffers from epilepsy.
Here Gina gives direct voice to that sense of a rock'n'roll record scratching to a halt, which the novel's opening section, by drawing our attention to the distance between lived experience and retrospective construal, had already imparted quite powerfully enough. l
Leo Robson is the New Statesman's lead fiction reviewer