Opening a new book is a risk, no matter who the author is. It’s like climbing into a gypsy cab: You don’t know what you’re getting into. It may be an old rattletrap, with a driver on speed, or a perfectly engineered luxury sedan in which you sink back and let the driver take you wherever she wants you to go.
Anne Enright’s new novel, “The Forgotten Waltz,” is the luxury sedan. Everything in it is perfectly engineered, and it’s so beautifully written that you could read it once just for the dazzle of the prose, then start over for the content.
Not that there is much content. The story line is spare: Two married people fall in love, sort of, or anyway they have an affair, and then they leave their respective spouses and move in together, sort of. One of them has a daughter.
The narrative fans out quietly across time and space, backtracking through the narrator’s life. Gina Moynihan is in her late 30s. She’s middle-class Irish, father a drinker, mother a beauty. Fiona, Gina’s sister, is a beauty, too. She’s married, with a dull, rich husband and a house with an ocean view. Gina is not married and not a beauty. She’s a bit overweight (“The fat one,” she calls herself) and drinks quite a lot. She’s unapologetic about this; she’s unapologetic about everything. Gina is intelligent, funny, unsentimental, unpretentious and scarily observant. There is nothing she doesn’t see or understand.
The novel opens in 2002, and everyone in Ireland is rich, or nearly so, or thinks they are. The Celtic Tiger is roaring. They drink chardonnay, own vacation homes, work for Internet companies and travel all over the world.
Gina is in the middle of it all: “I work with European companies mainly, on the web. Languages are my thing. Not the romance languages, unfortunately, I do the beer countries, not the wine. Though I still think the umlaut is a really sexy distortion, the way it makes you purse your mouth for it, and all those Scandinavian ‘o’ and ‘u’ sounds give me the goose bumps.”
Gina’s husband, Conor, is burly, decent and good-hearted. He has a tattoo and a shaved head, which “usually annoyed me but it suited him because his skin was so brown and his skull so sizeable. And his neck was large, and his back bulged and sprouted hair from the shoulders down. What can I say? . . . No one had told me you could like that sort of thing. But I did.”
Gina’s candid, earthy voice is one of the book’s delights. When she first meets Sean, her lover, she and Conor have just come back from Australia: “A week . . . in Sydney, then north to this amazing place where we learned how to scuba dive. Where we also learned, as I recall, how to have sex while sober; a simple trick, but a good one. ”
The book beautifully occupies the territories of both mind and body. Gina is so intelligent that she might easily lead a life only of the mind, though she does not. The writing about sex is brilliant — about its lushness and desperation, its endless responsive presence, like a mirror reflecting the rest of our lives.
At the start of their affair, Gina and Sean work in the same office, electrified by the twinned tensions of sex and secrecy. During a business conversation, Gina feels “desire like a kick of blood, that hits low down, then spreads all through me, delicious and alight. It is contained, held by the secret, my skin is the exact shape of it, because I am the secret, I am the money, and this makes me feel I could do anything.”
And this book makes me feel that Enright could do anything. (Others agree: Her 2007 novel, “The Gathering,” won the Man Booker Prize.) The sensibility is subtle and complex, as the narrative explores connections between desire and responsibility — Sean’s daughter has a mysterious neurological condition — and the complicated ways in which duty is refracted into the rest of our lives. It’s about love, and sex, and the sinuous, unexpected paths they create, and the way they are inevitably entwined with family. It’s about fear and obligation and passion and ways in which we explain our actions to ourselves. The way we give up something we thought essential, for something that is. It’s hard to say which is more satisfying about this book: its emotional complexities or the frugal elegance of its prose.
Years later, Gina recalls the moment of her first meeting with Sean. “It really feels like night-time. The light is wonderful and wrong — it’s like I have to pull the whole planet around in my head to get to this garden, and this part of the afternoon and to this man, who is the stranger I sleep beside now.”
I suggest you climb into this book, lean back and trust Enright to take you wherever she wants to go.
Robinson is a novelist whose most recent book is “Cost.”
THE FORGOTTEN WALTZ
By Anne Enright
Norton. 261 pp. $25.95