Book review by Frank O’Shea
Sally Rooney. Normal People. faber & faber 2018. 266 pp
This novel was longlisted for the 2018 Man Booker Prize and won the 2019 Costa Novel Award. Although it has won wide praise from reviewers, it is not entirely clear what all the admiration is about. At times you may feel it is just another example of chick-lit, the kind of thing that Marian Keyes and Cecilia Ahern and Cathy Kelly have been doing for some time. But this seems to be different, more intense, less about love as romance than love as friendship. It is a love story for the millennium, a reminder that there is a new world out there, where ‘out there’ means modern post-Christian Ireland.
Marianne and Connell are in their final year of school in the fictitious town of Carriglea in Co Sligo. He is popular with his classmates, plays centre-forward in the football team; she is introverted, takes little care of her appearance and has no friends at school. Their backgrounds are different also: she lives in a ‘big house’ where his mother comes twice a week to do the housework. Their relationship is sexual almost from the beginning, but he must hide it from their classmates who would mock him. She is devastated when he invites another girl from their class to the Debs. (The Debs? In small-town Sligo!)
Succeeding chapters have titles like ‘six months later’ or ‘four weeks later’, so that the reader is carried along on the ups and downs of their relationship. Both go on to attend Trinity College, where she comes out of her shell, wears makeup, dresses in fashion and has many friends; now he is the one who is out of his comfort zone. They resume their sexual relationship for most of their first year, ending it when he returns to Carriglea for the summer.
The story switches point of view over the next two years, with each of the two characters becoming involved in new relationships, each one seeming to bring out new flaws in their personality. She discovers a fondness for masochistic sex and begins a relationship with a physical and emotional bully; he tends to intellectualise his emotions as if afraid to admit delight in the physical.
The book has secondary characters, but their stories are left unfinished. We learn that Marianne is bullied by her older brother but that situation is unresolved as is her relationship with her mother. One of their school friends commits suicide. Connell becomes seriously depressed and attends a psychiatrist who, after the normal psych gobbledygook, tells him, “I’m seeing that you are feeling very negatively towards yourself … so those are things we’d have to take very seriously.” It’s not entirely clear whether this depression still exists as the story ends.
In many ways, the story opens a door to the reality of life for young adults, a picture that is not always pretty. The writing is physical rather than emotional, the characters shed tears but the narrative is unlikely to cause the reader to do so. There are occasional flashes of brilliant description “Outside it’s still snowing. The exterior world looks like an old TV screen badly tuned. Visual noise breaks the landscape into soft fragments. Marianne buries her hands in her pockets. Flakes of snow fall on her face and dissolve there.”
Certainly more than chick lit, this is a book that points out the moral, social and intellectual pitfalls of life in today’s world, especially as lived in Ireland. If you are an older person and you think you have kept in touch with the ways of the young – teens and early twenties – here is a book that will change your mind.
Frank O’Shea is a member of the Tinteán collective.