Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Anne Enright: The Forgotten Waltz

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The Forgotten Waltz belongs to a sub-genre that I like to call the ‘Sad Hipster’ school of literary fiction. This type of fiction isn’t necessarily about, or written by, hipsters; I don’t know if Anne Enright herself has any hipsterish tendencies, but I doubt it. It’s just that while reading a certain type of book, I’m strongly reminded of these pictures here.

Perhaps this little quote will show the kind of an atmosphere I mean:

But this was later. Or perhaps it had happened already, perhaps it was happening all along. We might have run along these parallel tracks, of believing and not believing, for the rest of our lives. I don’t know.

I used to read quite a bit of this type of fiction, but nowadays I’m shorter on patience. I can’t help thinking, ‘Please, for the love of God, get to the point. Make me laugh; make me cry. Make me smile on the side of my mouth or sniff slightly with approval. ANYTHING.’ But a book of this kind refuses to do anything of the kind. Instead, it works up a trance-like state in which everything is meaningful, and yet, horribly, nothing ever is. (Which is exactly the kind of thing these people might be saying to each other.)

So, to begin with: Gina is in her early thirties, with a seemingly good career that’s actually going nowhere, and a hip lifestyle shared with her permanently boyish husband Conor. As we meet Gina, she is – or at least is supposed to be – on the verge of becoming a proper grown-up; she and Conor have been talking about having a baby. Instead of having a baby, she drifts into an affair with middle-aged management consultant Seán, who is married and has a young daughter, Evie, who is apparently somehow mysterious and portentous (to Gina, at least). In fact, there is precious little in the book that isn’t somehow portentous. Portentous gestures, portentous glass jugs, portentous cigarette smoke, portentous looks, all of it jumbled up in a somewhat confusing chronology: as Gina herself says at some point, ‘Things, clearly, did not happen in a particular order anymore: first this, and then that.’ As a narrator, she often seems confused about the story she’s telling, and her favourite phrase appears to be (in its many variations) ‘but I am getting ahead of myself here’.

The above is, pretty much, the story. It is interspersed with some touching episodes of childhood memories; at some point, Gina’s mother dies; and the portentous little Evie is often mentioned in passing, but plays a disappointingly small role, after all. (I’m also a bit uncomfortable with the way the 10-year-old child’s fatness and ‘flesh’ was constantly referred to, and with the mystification surrounding her mysterious illness, which turned out to be epilepsy – but that would be material for a different review.) The majority of the book is vastly portent-ified detail about lives that seem distant because of the subdued atmosphere and dull because none of the characters except Evie ever comes fully alive.

In a marvellous phrase, Gina calls the tension between herself and Seán a ‘copulatory crackle in the air’, but the further I read the more I wondered whether she was imagining the whole thing. This man, ‘the love of her life’, is simply awful, obnoxious, selfish and shallow all the way through. Not just awful – but utterly boring as well. She becomes obsessed with him for no reason at all, and surrenders her entire happiness at his mercy. This isn’t a romance novel, but even in literary fiction, I’d like to see a little bit of motivation behind two people (apparently, maybe, at least sort of) falling in love.

 

He might have just put his head around my partition of fern, but his courtship was close and elaborate. Every time we spoke, it was as though we were rehearsing the lie.
‘Is that you?’ he might say, when I picked up.
‘Yes.’
I had never had an affair before. I did not realise how sexy it was to be clandestine. The secret was everything.
‘Are you at your desk?’
‘What do you think?’
I could hear him move and murmur a few metres away, but his real words were close, almost warm in my ear.
‘Busy?’
‘I am now . . .’
‘What are you doing?’
‘Well, I’m talking to you.’
The intimacy between us was so formal, so completely erotic.

I don’t know if my untrained eye is just missing the eroticism here, but I’m failing to connect to the copulatory crackle of these people.

It’s not like I don’t enjoy introspective fiction in which precious little happens, and it’s not like I’m turned off by characters just because they’re unlikeable. (I do tend to dislike adultery novels, so that’s definitely a personal bias, right there.) But what kept me reading The Forgotten Waltz was annoyance. Can a book be a failure if it makes one feel so strongly? I took copious notes of what exactly annoyed me, and at some point I knew I was no longer annoyed with the book but with Gina.

I understood this was very likely the point: Gina is the narrator, and this is the kind of person she is, rambling but avoidant (changing the subject whenever things get too emotional), apparently desperate to make her life appear more interesting to herself, and to justify her worst choices with all this sense of portentousness and fatalism. She makes mountains out of molehills, but would doubtless be terribly embarrassed to use such a clichéd expression.

As I read on, I realised this was the story of someone – Gina – who was merely pretending to be a grown-up, doing things grown-ups were supposed to do with no clear sense of why she was doing them. The kind of person who seems to feel that dissatisfaction, uncertainty, and disillusionment are what real life is all about, and happiness is something for the unrealistic and naive. And this, I felt, was also why her connection with naive but mysterious little Evie was played up, when it was unfortunately a very minor part of the story. Oddly, the last 40 pages of the novel, which focused on Evie, were by far the most interesting. Then it was over, and I was left even more frustrated with Gina and the story she had to tell.

I feel like this might have had the makings of a good book, but perhaps Gina the narrator was ultimately too flawed for that to be possible – or, I should say, the wrong narrator for me.

Vintage, 2012. 230 pp. ISBN: 24681097531

6 comments on “Anne Enright: The Forgotten Waltz

  1. annebrooke
    June 16, 2012

    Thank you, Leena – this review has made my day! A book to avoid, I feel … I am rather concerned about the narrator’s “partition of fern” however – is that what we gals are calling it these days??… :)

    Anne
    xxx

  2. Jackie
    June 16, 2012

    Oh what a great review! It made me laugh all the way through, though I doubt that’s the reaction the author intended her book to have. Terrific hatchet job!
    Gina sounds very annoying & I think I’d loose patience as well with her rambling narrative & immaturity. I wonder if her affair was meant to show how women often waste themselves on worthless men?
    Thanks for the Unhappy Hipster links,too, that is a new world for me. I thought the toddler pic had the best caption.

  3. Hilary
    June 17, 2012

    Ah – love among the management consultants – it had to happen. The point in this hugely entertaining review at which I actually yelped with laughter was this revelation of the Other Man’s profession – the bathos of it was wonderful. Or maybe I’m missing something, and this is a calling with true erotic and romantic potential. But not here, as your excellent review makes clear. I’m also wondering what I’ve been missing during all those years in the workplace, failing to spot the erotic charge crackling through various partitions. As it was, I had to find out all that through gossip in the pub.

  4. Kate
    June 17, 2012

    Anne Enright is such a great columnist, a really good essay writers …. but i can’t say i want to try her ficiton at all now!

  5. Alison M.
    June 17, 2012

    I disliked Gina & Sean so much. I also found it frustrating that we never properly heard the viewpoint of their husband & wife, they were made as unimportant by the author as they were to Gina & Sean, who didn’t give a damn about the hurt they were causing. Only worth reading if you want a portrait of two of the most selfish characters I’ve ever encountered.

  6. whatmeread
    June 18, 2012

    This is a great review, and I love the links!

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This entry was posted on June 16, 2012 by in Uncategorized.

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Acknowledgment

  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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