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review: fiction

Anne Enright photographed in Toronto on May 27, 2011

Anne Enright's The Forgotten Waltz is - as you would expect if you've read her Man Booker Prize-winning novel The Gathering or The Pleasure of Eliza Lynch or anything else by this author - provocative, sexy, romantic, distinctive and gorgeously crafted.

Gina Moynihan, Enright's protagonist, has embarked on a lasting affair that unfolds over the course of Ireland's economic boom and bust. This story begins near the end: "The fact that a child was affected meant we had to face ourselves properly, we had to follow through."

Following through amounts to an insightful examination of the anarchic demands of desire. Enright's voice is wry at its gentlest, always clear-eyed, sometimes smarting. Each of her sentences has a stand-alone beauty, spring-triggered with wit. They bring to mind the arch elegance of a Mavis Gallant sentence, or the sprawling urban sexiness of a sentence by Don DeLillo.

The chapters of this novel are the titles of pop songs, but Enright gives us the opposite of sloppy sentiment. This brand of romance takes no prisoners, it roller-coasters through, despite the innocent bystanders. There is a stepdaughter, Evie, who has a serious illness; there is Evie's mother, Aileen, and Sean and Aileen's own marriage, first crippled by fear for their daughter and finally destroyed by Sean and Gina's affair. There is Gina's own husband, Conor, loving and undeserving of betrayal.

Enright turns love - in its many manifestations - inside out, so we can see the guts of it. The costs grow, the economy crashes and the narrator finds herself, inevitably, alone on Christmas Day.

As with any sophisticated plot, we are engaged not so much by what happens - we are told outright what happens in the preface - but by the meaning of what happens, as meaning accrues.

Some of the best books, perhaps all of the best books, are about ungovernable desire, how desire wrecks us, makes us act against our better interests, how it tears through, how we falter in the face of it, how we become selfish and selfless at once, unfathomable to ourselves and others; the best books show us how desire seems to come from the outside, is visited upon us, and how giving in to desire is freedom.

Gina has acted with abandon, yet there is a sense that this narrator has to account for herself; to make her new love real by inventing the story of it. She first encounters Sean in her sister's garden, during a barbecue, while stealing away, behind a child's log cabin, for a cigarette.

"I lurk behind this yoke - and I am so busy making this seem a respectable thing to do; leaning into the fence, smoothing my skirt, furtively rooting in my bag for smokes, that I do not see him until I light up, so my first sight of Sean (in this, the story I tell myself about Sean) takes place at the beginning of my first exhalation: his body; the figure he makes against the view, made hazy by the smoke of a long-delayed Marlboro Light."

Enright captures by connotation, in this limpid picture, the physical craving of the affair and how it will be sated - the exhalation - even though it is clearly not a respectable thing to do. Gina does not see Sean until she lights up. He is made up, or comes into being, it is implied, because of her desire for him, because of the story she will tell.

And here too is the admission: What we are reading is a slanted story, the portrait of a man rendered by his lover, still hazy against the backdrop of a crumbling Ireland. Enright captures that addled, paradoxical, nascent moment of love - the leap of faith - when we find ourselves falling, but before we know whom, exactly, we're falling for.

Adultery (the word that comes most readily to the Gina for what she has done) is studied with a cold/hot eye. Hot because it's full of the sexiest sex, cold because there is a sobering snowfall and, eventually, the economic crash.

Enright gets the why of love. The affair happens because there is money in Ireland and money brings freedom, because the stylish ennui of the office, the hide-and-seek of its glass walls and hothouse foliage are conducive to romance (or at least the satire of office culture, its over-ripe, pre-bust malaise and pumped superiority), as is the business trip, the proximity and anonymity of airport hotels. Because the strain of a sick child on a marriage can split it asunder, because Gina and Sean couldn't help themselves, because they were drunk when it started, because desire doesn't need a because, and never succumbs to a why.

And there is also the why not, when it comes to adultery. Families destroyed, loved ones betrayed, an old-fashioned shunning ensues; there will be costs. There will be a couple of ex-husbands, and an ex-wife, and, most importantly in this novel, a child who gets caught in the fray.

Children matter a great deal in Enright's work, and Gina must come to terms with being in second place, in terms of her lover's affections. This is also, of course, a book about step-parenting. The need to court a child who both is and isn't your own.

Anne Enright acknowledges both the damage and the rewards of the freedom unleashed in The Forgotten Waltz. She captures falling in love with someone already taken, the bare-knuckled longing of it: sitting outside a married lover's house, watching the lights go out, to determine if he's sleeping in the same bed as his wife. And the prosaic settling down - bittersweet - that must follow the exhilaration and destruction of an adulterous affair.

Lisa Moore's most recent novel, February, was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize.