With the winner announced on May 30th, the chances that I will manage to read the entirety of this year’s Orange Prize shortlist prior to the ceremony seem remote. I reviewed Esi Edugyan’s Half Blood Blues when it was shortlisted for the Booker last year, and still can’t quite understand why it is being so well rewarded; Anne Enright’s The Forgotten Waltz, on the other hand, reads both more wittily and grittier – and, if I’m not going to make it through all six books, I may as well take a punt on this one being a contender for the prize.
The story of Gina Moynihan – it is a sign of the narrator’s self-ambivalence that we only learn her name on page 59 – Enright’s first novel since the Booker-winning The Gathering is in one way that most old-fashioned of all literary novels: the adultery book. Indeed, Gina is in many respects a modern, Irish Emma Bovary: swept away by her worst romances, seduced by the smallest of excesses, and entirely ill-equipped to reflect on the likely consequences of her actions. That the novel takes place on the cusp and in the immediate aftermath of the 2008 crash, in which the Celtic tiger proved in fact to be rather toothless, adds an extra resonance to all this, however.
Gina tells her story in a self-consciously disconnected fashion: “I have to backtrack a little,” she says at one point, “and say that there were other things that could have happened with our lives.” [pg. 23] She is interested in emphasising her own agency, in owning the consequences of her actions even – perhaps especially – if she cannot predict them, and for this reason routinely pauses her narrative, or cycles backwards or forwards within it, to emphasise its contingency (“I think we should own up to what we know” [pg. 95]). Within the first page or two, we know in broad terms how these relationships of Gina’s will go, how they will end; and all this post hoc prescience is embodied in the figure of Evie, the daughter of Seán, the man with whom Gina will – is, did – conduct an extra-martial affair: “there was,” we’re told as early as possible, “even at that stage, an ambivalence about Evie, the sense of things unsaid.” [pg. 1]
Evie represents the knowing future, the child who is an inheritor of the bad decisions of the present. In the novel’s final pages, Gina tries half-heartedly to extricate herself from blame for all that has happened as a consequence of Seán’s affair. It could have been anyone, she says. “But it wasn’t,” replies Evie. “It was you.” [pg. 229] In this way, Gina’s project of taking responsibility achieves a potency in the actuality of the child. The irony of this is that the sins of the fathers (and mothers) were committed in the pursuit of childishness: when Gina feels the first stirrings of desire for Seán, she feels “- for these few moments at least – [like] the bouncing girl.” [pg. 28] Likewise, when their affair begins in earnest, Gina notes of Seán “that inward look as he tries to catch his pleasure, the thing that puts him off his strike, I realise, is age. Or the fear of age.” [pg. 35]
Enright’s novel, then, is about a woman attempting to take responsibility for an irresponsible lifestyle. Seán glides through pre-crash Europe in professionally-laundered shirts and conspicuous cufflinks, his iPod playlist something to die for. “Everyone is selfish,” Gina shrugs in conversation with another character. “They just call it something else.” [pg. 146] When her mother dies, she is left with a house that, as the property bubble bursts and prices crash, she cannot sell. Seán, meanwhile, is stranded on a deal in Budapest which is turning very sour. “We thought Seán was making money,” Gina says. “It turns out he was actually losing money. But you know, it still felt good.” [pg. 125]
Seán is briefly attracted to a recent graduate, a young woman whom Gina disparages for talking endlessly about her grades and incessantly about herself. In this way, Enright uses her narrator’s acerbic wit as much against her protagonist as against those she aims to skewer: Gina can be nasty, but this, too, is because she refuses to grow up in much this self-indulgent way. The husband Gina leaves – whom she has never known to do a single cruel thing, unlike the avowedly amoral Seán – is still guilty of enjoying staying at his parents’ house because of “the chance it gave him to be a boy again.” [pg. 71] What every character must come to learn, however, is that “of course you are not twelve. And you regret everything.” [pg. 143]
In this way, Evie’s tragedy is Ireland’s tragedy – that the fun that was had was unsustainable, that in truth everyone “knew this and did not know it, at the same time” [pg. 114] – and that the consequences will be as dire as they are obvious. In a piece for the Guardian Book Club, Enright wrote that she wanted Gina to have the reader’s sympathy without quite earning it. She achieves this in a way Jane Rogers failed to do in The Testament of Jessie Lamb (although, to be even-handed, these two first person self-explicatory monologues, so different in tenor and mode, make different demands of themselves – in fact, perhaps Rogers failing is precisely that she does not recognise that fact); indeed, it’s hard not to think that, in writing a thoroughly contemporary novel with means and methods not so terribly different to Flaubert’s, Anne Enright may have answered Jeffrey Eugenides. Worth a punt at the bookies.