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.
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.
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.
‘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