Life offers up these moments of joy despite everything, Sally Rooney writes in Normal People and this book is such an offering.
Normal People is a celebration of people, normal or otherwise, relationships, and above all: friendship. Friendship between a boy and a girl, between two people from different social standings: financially and among their peers. The book spans a period of a mere four years but charts dramatic ups and downs in the relationship of Marianne and Connell.
Although Marianne lives in a white mansion and Connell’s mother cleans that mansion, Connell is a popular boy at school and Marianne an outcast. Connell has friends and plays football for the school, while Marianne is bullied and called “flat-chested” in front of everyone. Despite all this, Connell and Marianne begin an intense sexual relationship. At school, he doesn’t look at her, but after school they sleep with each other and discuss books and politics. It’s this dichotomy that forms the basis of their relationship as they leave school, go to college, find and lose love, and learn to understand and accept themselves.
With Conversation With Friends Sally Rooney had already proved that she can write intelligently and honestly about the minds of young people. With Normal People she has cemented that reputation. Without alluding to the effects of social media, Rooney portrays the effects on young minds of the desirability to be admired and accepted by their peers. This desire to be popular, to be considered normal is what keeps Connell away from Marianne. While at the same time, all Marianne wants is Connell’s affection. Rooney deftly dissects the dynamic of a relationship where one participant is wholly submissive while the other has complete control. Connell can make Marianne do whatever he wants, in bed and out, and is aware of his hold over her, in fact he cultivates it.
The book takes the concept of “normality” — in all its social and psychological forms — and turns it on its head. What is normal? Am I normal? Is what I desire normal? Could it all be as simple as feeling comfortable in the company of someone no matter how abnormal the rules of engagement seem to the outside world?
Another recurring motif in the book is loneliness. Marianne without Connell, despite having a boyfriend and being surrounded by friends, feels alienated. Connell has a girlfriend, he attends parties, yet he has a constant feeling that something is missing. The protagonists don’t care for other people and yet they want to be loved and admired. They don’t try to ingratiate themselves to others but worry if anything bad is said about them. They are truly themselves with only each other, so when apart they feel isolated. Rooney has expertly captured this crushing loneliness resulting from putting up a facade to hide the conflict and emotions which rages in oneself and cannot be shared with just anyone.
The book, however, is vague about details. Marianne’s family history has surprisingly been left untold even though her abuse at the hand of her brother explains, to a large extent, her self-loathing. Her relationship with her mother is sour at best but what has caused this estrangement has not been revealed. The repetition of how intelligent and special both Marianne and Connell are comes across as clunky. It feels a bit like hand-holding, having to be told that there is a reason the protagonists are the way they are. It is safe to say that Rooney feels more at ease with characters’ immediate lives and relationships rather than details. However, despite these small hiccups, Normal People is definitely worth picking up and reading. If only to wonder who indeed among us are normal.
About Sally Rooney
Normal People is Sally Rooney’s second novel and was longlisted for The Man Booker Prize. Her stories, poems and essays have appeared in The New Yorker, Granta, Stinging Fly and The Dublin Review among others. Rooney studied at Trinity College, Dublin and was the European debating champion. Her debating skills are apparent in the way she handles her dialogues which allow the reader to see both side of an argument clearly, especially in this novel where the protagonists’ motivations are so different. In an interview for Granta, where her story Mr Salary was published, Rooney mentioned that she likes writing about relationships. “The idea that relationships constantly take forms that don’t really fit into categories that we use to describe those relationships…” This is especially true in Normal People where it’s hard to label the relationship between the protagonists at any given time. They might be best friends one day, lovers another, or simply schoolmates a few days later. The short story Mr Salary itself is about relationships and could have been a template for either of Rooney’s novels.
Although Rooney studied MA in American Literature and grew up reading American fiction, her heart seems quite rooted in Ireland where she was born. Her characters are Irish and attend Trinity College which Rooney describes beautifully through its politically-involved students. She writes about Dublin almost with love and captures its character like a painter. It’s not just the weather and the buildings, but the everyday people and the politics. Ireland, young people and weird relationships run like the Liffey through Rooney’s work. For now
Conversation With Friends by Sally Rooney; On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan; Tender by Belinda McKeon; The Lesser Bohemians by Eimear McBride.