Sally Rooney is a writer that stands out as the voice of young Ireland. The natural milieu of her characters are intellectual college educated women and men in their teens and twenties. From her first novel “Conversations with Friends” to her new Booker longlisted “Normal People” she presents their stories about grappling with relationships and finding a place in society with deceptively straightforward prose. While this runs the risk of appearing to have a parochial view of the world, it moreover reads as emotionally honest and engaging in a way that few writers can pull off. This new novel is the story of Marianne and Connell who come from very different socio-economic backgrounds. Connell's mother works as a cleaner at Marianne's family home. The differences in class seem an inconsequential part of their relationship at first, but as they get older it has more of an effect on how they connect to each other. The story charts the staggered journey of their bond from 2011 to 2015. You can read this novel for the insights it gives into modern life and the plight of a section of an emerging generation, but it's moreover a modern romance which meaningfully engages the reader in the characters' growth as individuals and tantalizes with the question: will they or won't they get together?
Before I recently read this novel I went to literary event and bumped into the excellent writer Ruth Gilligan who remarked how it's not been remarked in many reviews how at its core “Normal People” works as a really gripping romance story. I wonder if literary critics are hesitant to acknowledge this fact out of a fear that Sally Rooney will appear like a less intellectual writer. It's something Rooney herself seems to grapple with as her character Connell discovers Jane Austen's novels and the pleasure of an old fashioned romance story. “Normal People” is really an updated version of “Pride and Prejudice” or “Emma” for the way it takes seriously the struggle to find a real emotional connection amidst societal influences. It asks questions such as to what degree does social perception factor into our private relationships? How does wealth and power influence our connection to each other? In what way are our current relationships hampered by the emotional baggage of our pasts? But these larger questions linger in the background without intruding upon the pleasures to be found in the plot of Rooney's story. Marianne and Connell's relationship is on a par with that of the great tortured romances in literature like Scarlett O'Hara and Rhett Butler whose evident passion for each other is also stymied by circumstance and tragic misunderstanding.
Rooney has a particular talent for writing about the quiet emotional core and inner conflicts of her characters without any flourishes or elaborate language. This struck me following the journey of her character Frances in “Conversations with Friends” and it's even more powerfully portrayed in Marianne whose complex toxic family situation is slowly revealed over the course of the novel. At one point she observes of Marianne that “She wants to tell him things. But it’s too late now, and anyway it has never done her good to tell anyone.” Rooney describes in this powerfully understated way how the most significant things are often left unsaid and how we hinder ourselves from forming lasting connections out of a fear of truly revealing ourselves. At the same time she shows how the nature of being dictates we are all locked in a struggle between our inner and outer realities: “In just a few weeks’ time Marianne will live with different people, and life will be different. But she herself will not be different. She'll be the same person, trapped in her own body. There's nowhere she can go that would free her from this. A different place, different people, what does that matter?”
It feels like Rooney is deeply suspicious of the elitism of some literary circles. At university avid reader Connell develops a desire to become a writer himself but he's wary that the apparent insights fiction appears to give might be false. As someone from a working class background he's especially cognizant of how class factors into who consumes literature. When attending a reading he observes: “It was culture as class performance, literature fetishised for its ability to take educated people on false emotional journeys, so that they might afterwards feel superior to the uneducated people whose emotional journeys they liked to read about.” At the same time, literature is a method of creating a cultural dialogue that he still wants to participate in. But I wonder if this instance also gives an insight into why Rooney is so steadfast in writing about characters that are young, intelligent and Irish rather than imaginatively inhabiting the lives of people who are radically different from herself. I can't imagine Rooney writing about the plight of a Syrian refugee as Donal Ryan does in his accomplished novel “From a Low and Quiet Sea”. I imagine this would feel to her like an act for the sake of appearances and showily engaging in cultural dialogue. That's not to say Connell's feelings are necessarily her own, but that it's striking in the two novels Rooney has produced that she's stuck to writing about the lives and concerns of a limited set of people. This doesn't demonstrate a lack of imagination, but the conscious intent of a talented writer.
Since Donal Ryan is also longlisted for the Booker prize, it also seems interesting to compare “Normal People” to another Irish longlisted title “Milkman” by Anna Burns. Rooney and Burns have very different styles of writing and focuses - “Normal People” is set in rural Ireland and Dublin while “Milkman” is set in Northern Ireland during The Troubles. But there's a striking coincidental parallel between the novels in that they both feature socially outcast female protagonists who read constantly to consciously escape their surroundings and develop relationships with men unwilling to label that relationship as committed. I don't know if this says anything significant about Ireland, modern social culture or the dynamic between men and women, but it's an interesting connection. While we can easily debate about the inherent worth of the Booker prize and the choices that the judges have made in their longlist this year, I enjoy how the prize has prompted me to read these new novels in close proximity to each other. But regardless of book prizes or literary culture in general, “Normal People” is a wonderfully engaging novel.