Sally Rooney appears to be the darling of the literary world. Her most recent novel, Normal People (2018) followed close on the heels of Conversations with Friends (2017). Both received fulsome praise in all the right places and awards/nominations to bolster the young Irish writer’s growing reputation. The question with such breakout stars is, always, are they actually that good? To sate curiosity immediately, my answer is: Yes, Rooney is good. But of course, there is plenty to unpack in that statement and in Normal People.

Growing up ‘normal’ isn’t easy, especially when you are stuck in the unfashionable town of Sligo on Ireland’s west coast. Connell is a working-class lad who plays on the school football team but harbours a secret interest in literature. Marianne is the odd one out at school: introspective and anxious, she is known as the girl whose father died, and who lives in the “white mansion with a driveway” where Connell’s (single) mother cleans to make ends meet. Both parties are damaged (we learn) and inevitably fall into a non-relationship where they create a small bubble in which to exist together, privately. The novel tracks this relationship from its inception during high school, through university, and beyond as the pair oscillate in and out of each other’s lives.

So far, so unremarkable. And here’s the rub: that’s all there is to this novel. It is the story of two damaged youngsters hurting each other through unspoken words, miscommunication, and misdirected feelings with very little of the world or other characters’ lives infringing on it. That is it. And yet, that is everything in the microcosm of young life. Marianne, ridiculed at school, reinvents herself at university as a cool, aloof intellectual from an untrendy background. She is a masochist and an enigma, an unknowable riddle that fellow students want to solve. Connell – who follows Marianne to University College Dublin – has no abuse story in his past, no flashbulb event that shapes him, he is simply an awkward young man who drifts in and out of depressions, and who, like Marianne, seems to exist in a place both inside and outside of social groups.

Marianne and Connell’s story is told episodically, each chapter announcing itself as happening ‘three months later’, etc. but then doubling back on itself to revisit previous events and reconfigure their meaning, to fill in blanks that the reader has missed. It is reminiscent of The Good Soldier in this beautifully chronological yet circular structure, although, I should say, far less sophisticated in its execution than that novel (which is, by my reckoning, one of the most beautifully formed novels I have read, so to not meet that standard is no criticism at all). Rooney’s use of these vignettes that capture snatches of lives in pockets of times (sometimes months apart, sometimes minutes) is very effective and allows the reader to drift with Connell and Marianne, in and out of one another’s story, as minor players (boyfriends/girlfriends) come and go.

If we take the plot as unremarkable, indulgent even, we must dig deeper to understand what is going on beneath the surface in this novel that has caused it to be so highly acclaimed from so many quarters. The natural place to start is with Marianne, who is, for me, the centre point of the story. Marianne outshines Connell as a character and gives Rooney the space to explore the themes that are important in Normal People. While Marianne is from a well-to-do family, it is not necessarily this that sets her apart at school. Rather, she ostracises herself. Her cold, logical response to all enquiries from her peers strikes a discordant note, and her head is clearly ringing with concerns (Art, Syria, etc.) that most of her schoolmates know or care little about. We later learn that Marianne’s family abused her and her closed, mature demeanour makes a lot more sense with that knowledge. Despite carrying all this, at no point does Marianne explode; rather, she carries a tight-lipped masochism with her as she bounces from one relationship to another with men – boys – who take from her. She is detached, emotionally and physically, and there is a sense that only her relationship with Connell has the potential to reconcile the different aspects of herself. Unfortunately, for most of the novel, Connell himself fits into the mould of men who seem to practice romance unlovingly with Marianne.

If Marianne’s character is awkward, restrained, and beautifully wrought, Connell’s is a little less convincing. He appears to exist mainly in relation to Marianne (hence my assertion that she is the centre of the novel) and offers a way into her story, which she cannot tell alone. Connell is seen as a popular enough guy at school, playing football and socialising with girls. When he takes up with Marianne, he encourages her to keep the relationship (although it is never labelled as such) secret from everyone for fear of losing face at school. This marks an important strand of Connell’s character: his inability to own his emotions and the problem this causes in his relationships. Rooney’s exploration of masculinity and the struggle to manage new emotions is one of the most successful aspects of Connell as a character.

As a foil for Marianne, Connell is perfectly serviceable. Where he starts to fray around the edges as a character is when we dig deeper into him. He, it seems, loves literature (he is top in the school) and cares for the imagined romances of characters he finds in the pages of books as much, if not more, than he appears to care for those in his real life. He recognises that literature is not a well-paying career choice but nevertheless, rather than repress the instinct, takes it up at university, trying to impress Marianne, perhaps, or prove his worth to himself. My sense is that this aspect of Connell is too much of a stretch in what is otherwise a novel without sentiment. You would have to walk through a lot of university literature classrooms to find a decent pool of stolid young men who could be described as working class and affectedly literary beyond their natural inclinations. It is not an impossible scenario but it is one that should be marked out as unusual and, for me, artificial. Then there is Connell’s depression, which drifts in and out of the novel and becomes more concrete only towards its latter stages. Largely this is done well but I cannot help but feel Connell is an amalgamation of parts needed to further Marianne’s story and sympathetic/sentimental parts that gives his character less sharpness than Marianne’s.

As I say, Connell is perfectly serviceable as a foil for Marianne and the miscommunications between the two are brilliantly put together by Rooney. We might be very far from Regency England, but the machinations of young people change very little and we could be reading Jane Austen, transported 200 years, wryly running an eye over the interpersonal politics of the day. Rooney doesn’t write with the comedic touch of Austen – she has a steadier style, closer to 1950’s social realism – but she understands, as Austen did, the nuances of communications, particularly those relating to the heart. How Rooney wrings ambiguity and drama from messages exchanged between Connell and Marianne is brilliant, finding the right balance between situating conversations in the modern day and the everlasting conversation between lovers that stretches back further than words.

Connell is not Marianne’s only romancer, and as she grows into herself during university and beyond, she captures the attention of many boys, including the son of a wealthy banker who (at her request) beats her during sex, and an amateur photographer who captures her body with his camera as he directs her actions. Bubbling beneath the narrative throughout are body politics and Marianne’s struggle to claim ownership of her own body. Her early childhood obviously shapes her relation to sex but her experiences speak to a wider concern of all women, whose bodies have, and continue to be, co-opted by men, artlessly and selfishly.

Rooney’s style is that of the short story writer – essentially we have a series of short stories here, masquerading as a novel – and the majority of what is important happens beneath the surface. Style and subject meld perfectly in that sense and there is an expectation that readers look beyond the words to fully appreciate all that is going on with the characters and the novel. It is a style that I have struggled with in the past (I am not a big short story reader) but as I grow older, I appreciate it more. There is a lot to unpick in this bald novel and I have no doubt that it will, like just about anything by Ali Smith, be a wet dream for teachers of creative writing all over the country. That is not intended as a criticism but merely an observation that Normal People is the embodiment of the Creative Writing Text.

In fact, following on from that point is a small one about Rooney’s style. She has chosen not to enclose dialogue within quotation marks, which a lot of people will find pretentious and exactly the sort of thing a Creative Writer does. It irks me as it seems to place making a point above the comfort of the reader, but didn’t have any great impact on my reading of the novel. In fact, I barely noticed the lack of quotation marks after a while but had more problems with the occasional sentence that didn’t quite hit the right note. Take this one for example:
Their secret weighed inside her body pleasurably, pressing down on her pelvic bone when she moved.
This is personal taste, but sentences like this – normally around sex in some way – are the linguistic equivalent of someone running their nails down a chalkboard to me - and wouldn't be out of place in a Barbara Cartland novel. There were also sentences that seemed a bit clumsy to me. Take the following statement as Connell and Marianne pull into the latter’s drive:
Her mother's car wasn't in the drive. Her mother wasn't home.
To me, the second sentence is an assumption based on the first – it is not definitively known by the characters and is an assumption the reader could make without direction. Similar with this pair of sentences:
“She'd lost more weight in Sweden. She was thinner now.”
These are hardly crimes against literature but did occasionally take me out of the story and only stand out because of how crisp and economical Rooney’s prose is elsewhere. If this is the worst to be found in a novel, the author is probably doing something right. And Sally Rooney is. I cannot see Normal People going down as a book affectionately remembered by the reading public as a whole, but I do believe it will find its place among the shelves of campus professors and in the hands of aspiring writers. More importantly, it is evidence of a very fine talent and one that will grow and grow. While the style and the subject matter of this book may not be everyone’s cup of tea, I strongly suspect that Rooney – who has not even reached her thirtieth birthday yet – will find plenty more vehicles for her undeniable talent.

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