The Forgotten Waltz

The Booker Prize winner Anne Enright continues to explore the anatomization of women's lives

The Forgotten Waltz is the story of Gina Moynihan: career woman, girl about town, sister, aunt, daughter - and, when she falls for the equally married Sean Vallely, adulterous wife.

They meet innocuously enough, at a children's party. Neither dreamboat nor moustache-twirler, Sean is revealed as vulnerable but controlling, on the face of it appealing, but - in a departure from novels of this type - never fully attractive to the reader.

Told with Anne Enright's trademark detail, wit and beady-eyed observation of contemporary Irish life, the book avoids being either a starry-eyed romance or a vivisection of a woman's weakness, but instead balances precariously between these extremes: a last chance romance, as it were.

It's only a writer like Enright who can pull this off without the work plummeting into the chasm or floating away on hot air.

The relationship between Gina and Sean spans a period when Ireland's economy transforms from Celtic Tiger to drowned kitten, so the book offers a pithy snapshot of a middle-class society in transition. With hindsight, Sean's arrival as consultant in Gina's office can be seen as foreshadowing the economic doom of her company, their households and the country.

Family homes are constantly used to underscore the characters and country's circumstances. When weekend cottages are bought and decorated they are status symbols, but when the recession hits, they turn into unsellable albatrosses.

Preoccupied by her marriage, mortgage and illicit lover, Gina seems just a little too detached for her own good: from the start she makes caustic observations about everyone and everything, and especially concerning is the lack of attention she pays to her declining mother.

A sense of hubris looms large, and indeed, when news of her affair is out, roles are reversed and everyone she felt so elevated above now looks down on her. As a reader, it's difficult not to tut that she had it coming.

Early last year, Enright wrote with penetrating insight about Iris Robinson: her vilification of the gay community, her extravagant lifestyle, and then the well-publicised affair that led to her downfall, all wrapped up with a bow spelling religious hypocrisy.

It would be tempting to seek parallels between The Forgotten Waltz and the Robinson affair, yet the book is not a Scarlet Letter for modern-day Ireland, and Gina's experience can't be defined as a fall from grace. As Enright has it, grace is a state nobody really attains, and so it can't be plummeted from.

Of course, the real elephant in the living room for any reader contemplating this book is Enright's previous novel, The Gathering. Winner of the 2007 Man Booker Prize, it has given Enright a whole new audience beyond the hardcore literati. The marketing goes something like this: 'If you liked The Gathering, here's more of the same!'

However, while Enright's innate writing skills and the fearless anatomization of women's lives that made The Gathering so compelling are also present in The Forgotten Waltz, the new book is not a simple rehash. The problems its characters face and the paths that fate forces them on make it a whole different animal.

We feel slightly inarticulate when faced with a book like this. It's very good, but not quite likeable. Enright gives us much to think about, but offers few answers, no simple solutions. Life, she says, isn't straightforward. Love, she suggests, may not tear us apart, but nor can it be relied upon to hold us together.

The Forgotten Waltz is out now, published by Jonathan Cape.