Review: Normal People by Sally Rooney
People know that Marianne lives in the white mansion with the driveway and that Connell’s mother is a cleaner, but no one knows of the special relationship between these two facts.
Connell and Marianne grow up in the same small town in rural Ireland. The similarities end there; they are from very different worlds.
When they both earn places at Trinity College in Dublin, a connection that has grown between them lasts long into the following years.
This is an exquisite love story about how a person can change another person’s life – a simple yet profound realisation that unfolds beautifully over the course of the novel.
It tells us how difficult it is to talk about how we feel and it tells us – blazingly – about cycles of domination, legitimacy and privilege.
Alternating menace with overwhelming tenderness, Sally Rooney’s second novel breathes fiction with new life.
I feel compelled to tell you how much I loved this book. It’s the book that has most gotten me to sit up and take notice this year. And it punched me right in the gut over and over. In the best way, it’s about two small lives, and how they intertwine, but told with such accuracy, such deep observation and description of how confusing emotions are felt. Misunderstanding, longing, belonging together or not. Wow. I found the writing a total gift. Did I say how jealous I am that Sally Rooney is only 27? She was born in 1991. This is her second bestseller, I read the first, Conversations with Friends recently and became aware of just how talented a writer she is. It’s definitely worth reading too. And there are only 18 months between the two books.
The writing is bracing and bare, the scenes and suffering are visceral and emotional. I’ve never been male, and neither has Sally, but some of the most emotional moments of the novel for me was Connell trying to navigate his feelings. A description of his experience at a funeral, and more specifically an interaction with his mother Lorriane whilst there had me shedding tears on the 212 bus to Belfast. Men’s mental health is suffering in this country and Rooney seems to underline this and get into the male psyche. It’s amazing.
But it’s Connell who’s the stunning creation, achingly convincing in his maleness and his struggle to understand, and find an outlet for, his feelings. Intelligent, vulnerable and hopelessly incoherent, he is, in many ways, as fatally constrained by his own gender as Marianne seems, to some extent anyway, to be freed by hers.
Connell loves Marianne but does not know how to be with her, can’t own up to his emotions, can’t give her what she needs – but neither can he exist without her. Safely ensconced with a new, dull girlfriend who makes him feel more uncomplicatedly happy (or so he tells himself), he sends ever more lengthy emails to Marianne. On one pungently observed occasion, he dreams up a good phrase and gets ready to write to her “only to remember that he can’t email her when she’s downstairs”.
In the same token, the feminist themes are strong. Small almost imperceptible lines like ‘she wanted to have sex so they did’ and Connell’s patience and seeking consent was noticeable. There’s plenty of sex, and often that can put me off in writing, but in Normal People it’s written fairly and without eroticism, but the intensity of the experience is there, and the patterns and themes become apparent. ‘It’s emotionally and sexually admirably frank’ as Myerson says.
Also this New Statesman Review by Olivia Laing. As well as the Julie Myerson Guardian one linked above. I’m struggling with my words about this Man Booker Long listed book.
A fresh and wonderful angle and view of love, at times devastating, confusing, wounding and damaging, not much sweetness here but deep communications, safety, familiarity, desire… oh so much. I simply can’t do it justice. It’s a truly beautiful novel. I’m aware now that I haven’t given you any examples of Rooney’s actual writing. The descriptions are pure and the dialogue is stripped back and to the point. But maybe it’s better if you read it yourself.