What is normal? How does one become normal? In Irish novelist Sally Rooney’s writing, it is a desirable and a difficult state to achieve. In Rooney’s new Booker long-listed novel, Normal People, one of the two main characters, Marianne, appears at long last at peace with herself when she believes “she’s a normal person now”, having negotiated many extremes. In Rooney’s previous novel, last year’s widely acclaimed Conversations With Friends, the narrator Frances, another young woman, nurses a compulsive worry to feel normal while wanting to believe she is smarter than others.
“Normal” and “boring” are, incidentally, how 27-year-old Rooney likes to describe herself in interviews, of which she has done many considering her popularity as an exceptionally resonant and impressive voice in new Irish writing and in global millennial fiction. Her books are already being made into films. Rooney grew up in the conservative town of Castlebar before moving to study literature at Trinity College, Dublin and it is this setting that she employs in both her novels. After years of feeling like an outsider in her hometown, identifying herself as a Marxist in her teens, the repeal of the ban on abortions in Ireland in May 2018 brought so much relief to Rooney that she “felt incredibly happy to feel normal...I feel so at home, walking down the street, seeing people who probably agree with my opinion.” She finally felt like she could belong.
Rooney’s engagement with the world informs the landscape of her lucid “he said, she said” narrative that is populated by uber-articulate, young and gifted characters. They are culturally and politically aware and free of traditional bonds, but also deeply emotionally repressed, self-destructive and given to presenting themselves in an unfazed, intellectual manner. Normal People and Conversations With Friends, which share a pool of themes about young love, adultery, intellectualism, privilege, economic theory, gender politics, mental health, and abuse, but are essentially very different novels, are both enormously satisfying for the beauty of her style and the depth of her understanding of human behaviour.
The Rooney universe is a perceptive recreation of what it is to be young and restless, and how wealth (or the lack of it), the environment we grow up in, the socio-political context of our time, the circles we move in and the people we become intimate with have the power, much of it subconscious, to construct an individual. It is also about what we say, and what we don’t say, that propels us forward.
The second book
In Normal People, we meet two high-schoolers: Marianne – rich, unpopular, intelligent, who is trapped in a violent home, and Connell, popular, smart, cared for by a single and affectionate mother who works as a cleaner at Marianne’s palatial home. They come from very different worlds, and are drawn to each other in a confusing but intense relationship that they decide to keep a secret. Connell, Marianne understands, is embarrassed to be publicly associated with someone like her who is deemed an alien for her revolutionary ideas and social awkwardness.
“Marianne’s classmates all seem to like school so much and find it normal. To dress in the same uniform every day, to comply at all times with arbitrary rules, to be scrutinised and monitored for misbehaviour, this is normal to them. They have no sense of the school as an oppressive environment.”
When Marianne and Connell move to Trinity College after school, the power dynamics shift. Her privilege, wealth and sophistication throw Marianne to the centre of the cool crowd in Dublin, while Connell hovers on the fringes, uncomfortable about moving around in her reflected glory but initially unable to adjust to the big city life on his own terms.
Rooney tracks their on-off relationship over four years, in chapters that move from “Six Months Later”, “Four Months Later” to “Five Minutes Later”, in a fractured structure that reflects their fractured bond. This is an exquisite love story that is as specific to its physical context as it is universal. Rooney places her two protagonists on a see-saw that wobbles with the shifting nature of cerebral, sexual and economic dominance. “It was in Connell’s power to make her happy. It was something he could just give her, like money or sex.”
In the folds of their intense feelings for each other is great pain, especially in moments when Marianne is compulsively drawn to sexually violent partners while drifting away from Connell, and Connell is unable to bridge the distance between them that is marked by her being born into privilege. Their respective vulnerabilities are hidden behind on and off aloofness, which Rooney captures movingly, telling us both what her characters are willing to reveal and what they conceal.
The first book
The more airy Conversations with Friends is placed on similar ground, but feels more performative. It is a story about friends and former lovers Frances and Bobbi, both students at Trinity College, and what happens when they meet and get entangled with an older, sophisticated married couple, Nick and Melissa. The start of an affair between Francis and Nick shakes up the entanglements in unpredictable ways, moving briefly to summery, revelatory episodes in France, and then back to Dublin.
The book is constructed from Frances’s perspective, who is an aspiring writer with a vast bank of wry and provocative things to say such as “...I wanted to destroy capitalism and that I considered masculinity personally oppressive”, some of it over late night email and messenger to her friends. They flow to the tune of online conversations such as this:
Bobbi: if you look at love as something other than an interpersonal phenomenon
Bobbi: and try to understand it as a social value system
Bobbi: it’s both antithetical to capitalism, in that it challenges the axiom of selfishness
Bobbi: which dictates the whole logic of inequality
Bobbi: and yet also it’s subservient and facilitatory
Bobbi: i.e. mothers selflessly raising children without any profit motive
Bobbi: which seems to contradict the demands of the market at one level
Bobbi: and yet actually just functions to provide workers for free
me: capitalism harnesses “love” for profit
me: love is the discursive practice and unpaid labour is the effect
me: but I mean, I get that, I’m anti love as such
Bobbi: that’s vapid frances
Bobbi: you have to do more than say you’re anti things
For a writer who is very specific about how conversations begin and where they lead and just how comically artificial or brutally real she wants them to be, Rooney appears to enjoy leaving the big question in both her books – “will they, won’t they” – tentative, in a way that is not entirely out of place in the messy universe of modern romance in the age of Tinder. What is also marvellous about her writing is her interest in the minute details of human behaviour as a response to a certain moment, often visceral in nature, the turn of a head, the rise and fall of shoulders, the look on a face – all told simply but terribly meaningfully without becoming an overstatement of fact or feeling.
She calls it “spare prose that you could say is Hemingway-onward. The pared-back sentences. And I do like that mid-century American prose style. But then the other element of style is that hyper-aware, culturally switched on thing.” Her writing is, curiously, hugely accessible, while also being a vehicle for free-flowing cultural theory that her precocious set of millennials hold dear. It is common for her characters to label themselves freely as “Marxist”, “communist”, “neurotic individualist”. But beyond the posturing – on the part of her characters – is an immersive exploration of the interiority of its young people, exposing them to astonishing degrees of rawness. Sex, conversations, alcohol are the only constants, while the need for commitment and belonging is fleeting.
As an experienced debater – at 22, she was number one in competitive student debating in Europe before she bowed out of that world – the art of flowing, untiring prose and repartee appears to come naturally to Rooney. In a personal essay about it, she writes: “I was nineteen when I started debating competitively, and it’s probably fair to say that most things I did when I was nineteen were motivated by a desperation to be liked. I wasn’t only willing to lose debates: I was willing to tell all my secrets, to lend money when I couldn’t afford to, and to date anyone who showed an interest in me, no matter how dull or aggressive. I had low self-esteem and a predilection for hero-worship, and I was extremely determined. This was probably the perfect cocktail of tendencies for the novice debater. But by the time I could see that, I wasn’t a novice anymore.”
Rooney’s writing is most impactful when she writes about young people like herself, but she also draws effective but troubling portraits of parental figures, who are frequently abusive and damaging. In response to a common question put to her about how much of her writing is auto-fiction, she wonders why readers are so inquisitive about this particular aspect, because she feels that “it strips me of the achievement of having written a novel to suggest that all this stuff happened in real life. Like, I had to come up with all that, so it’s annoying for a reader to suggest that I didn’t.”
When talking about autobiographical elements in her short story “Mr Salary”, she asks more specifically: “How does that information make the scene different for readers? Does it imbue the reading experience with some kind of increased authenticity because of its proximity to my real life? Or does it imply that rather than being the invention of a creative mind, this incident was just something that happened to me as a passive observer? In which case, is the story somehow less ‘literary’?”
When I think about what makes Rooney’s brand of self awareness and engagement with deeply relevant contemporary themes most remarkable to me, it is the way in which she operates seamlessly between the disparity in how we think, what we feel, what we say, and what we write. Caught in this web, there is no escape.