Anne Enright won the 2007 Man Booker Prize for her breakthrough novel The Gathering. This month her new novel The Forgotten Waltz is certain to win her even more accolades and new fans. CAHIR O’DOHERTY talks to Enright about the Booker win and how it has – and has not – changed her.
There is so much to enjoy in Anne Enright’s disarmingly funny and simultaneously hauntingly sad new novel The Forgotten Waltz that it’s hard to know where to start. This is a book that will make you gasp at its brilliance, in between fits of knowing laughter.
First of all there is its vitality and narrative force, which is astonishing, and the brittle but brilliant voice of Enright’s young narrator, Gina Moynihan, a 32-year-old Dubliner with a gimlet eye that at times sounds remarkably similar to Enright’s own.
Then there are the details of Gina’s unexpected and all consuming adulterous affair with the much older Sean Vallely, a married man with a troubled young daughter, Evie, whose presence in the equation raises the stakes for all parties involved.
Novels about the fallout that accompanies dubious adult behavior in the bedroom are plentiful, but books about what happens after the thrill of a once illicit affair settling down into domesticity are rarer, and in particular when they are narrated by a female voice.
But Enright’s new book isn’t just about the collapse of a marriage. It also finds a way to meditate on the economic collapse of the Irish nation by focusing on the increasingly overheating economy of the Celtic Tiger just as it is about to burst.
The Gathering, with its theme of abuse and its consequences, struck a major chord in Ireland and abroad where it was, let’s be honest, usually more admired more than loved.
The Forgotten Waltz is remarkable for having, on the surface at least, a much lighter tone while managing to venture further yet into deep water, an accomplishment that eclipses the novel that made Enright’s career.
“Awards are nice but they have no creative value at all,” Enright tells the Irish Voice, quoting her fellow writer William Trevor.
“They don’t help write another book, or necessarily hinder you at all. I think I just got on with it, and bringing out this book I realized in retrospect was harder than it would have been otherwise, because it’s a much more grown up serious business now.”
Winning the most celebrated literary prize in the world was bound to have changed her. It introduced her to the unfamiliar world of flashbulbs and celebrity, after all.
But apart from the media circus surrounding the two books, there’s another story to consider. Enright is the most accomplished Irish prose stylist of her generation, so she’s already a historical figure, and meeting her is in many ways like meeting a Beckett or a Joyce.
So to get away from all that, to get out of her own shadow and focus on the work itself, Enright decided early on what she wanted her latest book to be. “The Forgotten Waltz is a more accessible and public object than The Gathering was. That earlier book had been difficult to write and was tormented in its process and possibly difficult to read. The Forgotten Waltz was deliberately easier to read. It’s a give to the reader,” she says.
Enright admits she has enjoyed the strong reactions it evokes in its readers. Married women have condemned her young heroine whilst giving the man in the equation a pass. Younger women have taken a kinder view. Men have had distinctive responses too.
“People read the book very much by their own lights. Women especially judge Gina very strongly, which is part of the fun for me.
“If there is ambiguity in the book – and I love a bit of moral ambiguity – it’s between the reader and Gina, and her refusal to recognize what she’s saying. I had a lot of fun doing that. Because we don’t always know what we’re doing and we don’t always know what we’re talking about. It’s a very rare thing that you really do know what you’re doing actually.”
The vagaries of Gina’s emotions suited the backdrop of the Celtic Tiger boom, Enright says. “It suited an affair, it suited falling in love. After all the noise and clatter and the falling apart of that decade, that’s the moment when something else comes stealing in. That’s the moment when grace becomes possible. That moment of grace comes at the end of the book,” she says.
The Forgotten Waltz is told entirely from Gina’s point of view, but Enright misses no opportunity to signal to us what’s really in play.
“We have intimations of the truth of it all, but she doesn’t necessarily. People say Sean’s wife is boring in the book but actually it’s Gina who thinks she’s boring, which is a completely different idea.”
At all times Enright looks at Ireland through a modern, urban perspective that has eluded almost every other contemporary Irish writer. Her characters don’t agonize over their national identity, they simply belong to their city and suburb and the wider European continent in which they make their careers.
“Gina does mention the north when she’s driving up the M1,” says Enright, agreeing that grappling with her Irish identity is a complete non-starter for Gina.
“She mentions at one point that it’s not her favorite road in Ireland because it’s too straight and too flat. But she also mentions that she always loves the way the clouds gather over the Mourne Mountains, which she calls the gateway to the black north. There be weather, she tells herself, laughing.
“So the Irish identity thing is not something she thinks about. She’s a middle class Dubliner, her father was a solicitor and a drunk. And although I don’t mention this in the book, a Fianna Fail handler delivered the flowers that were sent to his funeral.
“My husband is much more party politically interested than I am. I just think that the local Irish story in economic terms has been a global story too. Ireland has been a canary in the coal mine when it comes to economic melt down.”
Although she doesn’t address it directly, in the book what happened to the world economy in September 2008 has had such a strong affect on Irish people’s lives that it went far beyond our democratic reach.
“How you voted or what country you were in did not make a blind bit of difference -- well, if you were in Germany that probably helps. But it wasn’t a problem of national identity. We could have done it all better God knows, but I’m not bitter,” she says with a bitter laugh.
The fierce little tragedy in which Gina (and in a way Ireland) play their parts in The Forgotten Waltz, and the speed with which her life changes due to it astonishes her.
“I just can't believe it,” she writes. “That all you have to do is sleep with somebody and get caught and you never have to see your in-laws again. Ever. Pfffft! Gone. It’s the nearest thing to magic I have yet found.”
Enright’s book is filled with such observations, and although The Forgotten Waltz wears its ambitions very lightly, the cumulative effect is dazzling. It will become a classic.