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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 10 December 2018

Book review: Sally Rooney's 'Normal People' is deeply insightful and intelligent

Sally Rooney handles her second novel, a coming-of-age tale, with the effortless control of an author who has decades of experience

Marianne and Connell rekindle their relationship as students in Dublin Getty
Marianne and Connell rekindle their relationship as students in Dublin Getty

Conversations With Friends, the Irish writer Sally Rooney’s debut novel, was met with critical and commercial success when published last year. We’re talking Zadie Smith’s White Teeth levels of buzz, and with good reason.

It wasn’t that the story was particularly radical – two Dublin students, Frances and Bobbi, become entangled with an alluring older couple – but what made readers sit up and take notice was the way in which Rooney handled her characters’ interactions, cutting straight to the core of their emotional lives.

Only one year on and Rooney’s follow-up, Normal People, has already been longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. On first glance, there’s the suggestion of juvenilia – initially I even wondered whether it was written before Conversations With Friends. Perhaps because it’s a coming-of-age story about two characters even younger than Frances and Bobbi (when the book opens, Marianne Sheridan and Connell Waldron are teenagers in their last year at school). Or perhaps it’s because there’s something deceptively narrow about Rooney’s focus on her two protagonists’ inner lives.

Then there’s the novel’s fragmented structure, narrative progression achieved by means of measuring time elapsed between chapters – “Six Weeks Later”, “Three Months Later”, “Five Minutes Later” – a device that could be mistaken as the sleight of an inexperienced hand.

Author Sally Rooney. Getty Images
Author Sally Rooney. Getty Images

First impressions are often misleading, though, especially when confronted with genuine ingenuity. In Normal People Rooney exhibits the kind of expert – and seemingly effortless – creation and control that would earn a writer who’s been honing their craft for decades considerable praise. It’s all the more extraordinary an achievement given she’s 27 years old and this is only her second book.

Both academically gifted, Marianne and Connell grow up in the same provincial Irish town. But whereas she’s wealthy and unpopular, he’s poor but well-liked.

They embark on a secret relationship. Marianne never asks Connell to go public, and he doesn’t want anyone to know about it. Not that this set-up can last, especially after he invites another girl to the end-of-year dance.

Fast-forward three months and they bump into each other at a party in Dublin where they’re both university freshers. Now it’s Marianne who’s in her element, and Connell who’s lonely and ostracised.

Much has changed, but not the attraction between them. Soon, they’re together again. But just as before, it doesn’t last. Things go unsaid, each of them thinks they’ve made themselves clear, but actually the opposite is the case.

As they drift in and out of each other’s lives for the next few years, the question of whether or not they’ll get back together, and if so, whether they can actually make it work, becomes all encompassing.

Plot-wise, very little happens. It’s a story both about nothing and everything; about two people, each of whom is trying to work out their place in the world – “his personality seemed like something external to himself,” thinks Connell, “managed by the opinions of others, rather than anything he individually did or produced” – while also making sense of their feelings for one another.

The question of what’s “normal” – normal behaviour, a normal relationship, how to lead a normal life – is the overarching theme. “Connell wished he knew how other people conducted their private lives, so that he could copy from example.”

To call him and Marianne star-crossed lovers sounds hackneyed, but Normal People is a love story, and there’s something fated about their entanglement. Recognising this makes their struggles to articulate how they really feel – as much to themselves as to each other – that much harder to bear. It’s also all the more excruciating because Rooney’s own command of their emotional landscapes is absolute.

There’s something almost disturbing about the way in which she exposes the workings of their hearts and minds – their pain and distress, as well as their fleeting moments of happiness and contentment. It feels like an intimacy that borders on the obscene.

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So too, her prose is precise and pared back, all extraneous detail stripped from the page until only pure meaning remains. Moving her characters around with the meticulousness of a director blocking a scene on a bare boards stage, she doesn’t linger on unnecessary descriptions of the rooms they’re in or the clothes they’re wearing, instead reserving all her energies for what really matters. Connell, for example, carrying his and Marianne’s secret relationship around with him, “Like an overfull tray of hot drinks that he had to carry everywhere and never spill.” Or Marianne, tired and frustrated, “drained, like a vessel turned out onto its rim”.

As readable as it is deeply insightful and intelligent, this is an exceptional book. My reaction as I read was unnervingly visceral, something of the same “strange emotional agitation” Connell experiences when, one night as the university library closes, he’s forced to stop reading Emma at a key moment. “He’s amused at himself, getting wrapped up in the drama of novels like that … But there it is: literature moves him. One of his professors calls it ‘the pleasure of being touched by great art’.”

To label the work of such a young writer so early in her career as such, smacks of hyperbole, but I really don’t know how else to describe Rooney’s talents. As impressed as I am by Normal People though, I’m all the more thrilled by the prospect of what’s still to come: think of what she’ll be capable of 10, 20, or even 30 years down the line.