Anne Enright doesn't believe in leading readers gently into anything — certainly not an affair. In "The Forgotten Waltz," the Irish writer plunges us headlong into the world of Gina Moynihan, young IT consultant and adulteress at large.
Gina is not so much an unreliable narrator as someone obsessed with her own unreliability. Dissecting her love affair with married man Sean Vallely, she constantly doubles back on her own thoughts and memories, gamely trying to pinpoint the moment when her conventional middle-class life — complete with husband and mortgage — dissolved into something darker and more complicated.
Her tone is often wry: "That all you have to do is sleep with somebody and get caught and you never have to see your in-laws again. Ever. Pffft! Gone. It's the nearest thing to magic I have yet found," Gina brags.
The real magic is in Enright's prose, which burrows into characters like fingernails into skin, peeling back the hidden layers of ordinary interactions and momentary thoughts. Material that another writer might string across a whole book, Enright burns up in a page, like it's nothing, using it to create a jagged portrait of Dublin during the recent boom.
When the novel opens, the air is crackling with real estate lust and Internet startups. Gina collides with Sean at a European conference: She's there for a panel on "International Internet Strategy," while he's presenting "The Culture of Money." They find themselves sleeping together, with very little ceremony: "It seemed that choice had nothing to do with it, or that I had chosen a long time ago. Not him, necessarily, but this; waiting for the lift in sudden silence with a man who did not even bother to court me. .... Maybe it was the drink, but my sense of time was undone, as idly as a set of shoelaces, that you do not notice until you look down."
Although she is already married to a sweet tech guy who is working all hours to keep up with the mortgage on their apartment, Gina throws herself into a sexual dalliance with Sean as if it's a grand adventure. But even as she is remembering the gorgeous highs of flirting and secrecy, Gina recounts her ambivalence. "After we made love — which we always did first, for fear, almost, of becoming friends — afterwards, when it was safe, Sean would talk to me about his life and I would be interested."
Other details temper Gina's lover's tale — the fact that she is so busy with Sean that she doesn't notice her mother slipping from flakiness into illness, for instance. Or that the economy is collapsing around them, pulling mortgages under water and forcing Gina to lay off her colleagues.
There's also the nagging problem of Sean's young daughter, Evie. Hovering over the novel like a chubby, unpredictable ghost, Evie has some kind of mysterious issue — a neurological condition, maybe — that causes her parents endless anxiety. And though Gina revels in her own freedom, the little girl is a reminder that the affair has the power to derail several lives.
"[T]hat is the thing about stolen love, it is important to know who it is you are stealing from," Gina notes archly.
Enright's early fiction was filled with wisps of fantasy (in "The Wig My Father Wore," an angel moves in with a TV game show producer), while her 2007 novel, "The Gathering," which won the Man Booker Prize, offered something more dense and mournful in its story of a woman trying to understand her brother's suicide.
In "The Forgotten Waltz," Enright balances rapture and grief — as Gina discovers while trying to explain events in an orderly way, these things tend to bleed together. The novel does lose some of its buoyancy as the love and money bubbles start to waver, though. Things that once looked so tempting now feel threadbare and routine.
But there are no simple judgments in this darkly funny book about adultery: just a clear-eyed accounting of what was spent and what was lost. As Gina quips, "Who would have thought love could be so expensive?"