Top positive review
A masterfully-written novel about young love in the 21st Century
October 1, 2018
Do you ever consider the profound impact significant others have on your life? Decades ago, when our son was toddlerish, my husband and I took him into the country for a weekend. We rented a tiny, Eskom-free stone cottage in a dark valley. One night, with the boy asleep, we sat outside, dazzled by the night sky, and drank a bottle of wine. We’d been a couple for more than a decade by then and somehow began talking about how being together had shaped us as individuals and influenced our life decisions. It was a gentle, but remarkably illuminating discussion for both of us and about both of us. It's a conversation I regularly replay to myself to remember how lucky I am.
I thought a great deal about that night as I read Sally Rooney’s novel, Normal People last week. Normal People tells the story about Marianne and Connell’s relationship, which begins when they’re at school in a small town in West Ireland and continues – on and off – for another four years while they’re at college in Dublin. It’s a tale with so many layers that, while my experience of reading it bordered on compulsive, I find it difficult to analyse – suffice to say that it’s not about the plot; it’s about the characters and their inner lives, and the writing.
Rooney, who is 27-years-old, is widely feted as the next best thing, “one of the most exciting voices to emerge in an already crackerjack new generation of Irish writers”, and a “Salinger for the Snapchat generation”. I don’t dispute the praise. Her writing is extraordinarily elegant. Confident and uncluttered, it conveys an immediacy and ingenuousness that drew me in and held me from beginning to end, which came too soon. The story, I felt – shocked to discover I'd reached the final full stop – was unfinished, there were loose ends to tuck away. But, once I recovered, I realised the way it ends is part of its magic. Real relationships are forever evolving, eternally incomplete, and so it figures that a novel about relationships will be too.
Normal People is told from both Marianne’s and Connell’s points of view. It reminded me how, no matter how well you think you know a person, your perceptions and understanding of what they say and mean can be skewed. The novel also shows how our identity, self-esteem and who we become as adults are bound to our upbringing – indefinitely. Marianne is from a wealthy, but unloving and dysfunctional family. Connell is from a poor, but loving family. It largely shapes who they are and how they relate to the world. The novel also examines the impact of bullying – both on victims and perpetrators.
Ironically, I might not find the book easy to analyse, but I could go on forever, waffling about the many layers in Normal People. I daren’t though because then you might not feel compelled to read the book yourself, which would be a pity. A huge pity. Here’s a tiny sample of the writing to demonstrate what a humungous pity it would be:
“Helen has given Connell a new way to live. It’s as if an impossibly heavy lid has been lifted off his emotional life and suddenly he can breathe fresh air. It is physically possible to type and send a message reading: I love you! It had never seemed possible before, not remotely, but in fact it’s easy. Of course if someone saw the messages he would be embarrassed, but he knows now that this is a normal kind of embarrassment, an almost protective impulse towards a particularly good part of life. He can sit down to dinner with Helen’s parents, he can accompany her to her friends’ parties, he can tolerate the smiling and the exchange of repetitive conversation. He can squeeze her hand while people ask him questions about his future. When she touches him spontaneously, applying a little pressure to his arm, or even reaching to brush a piece of lint off his collar, he feels a rush of pride, and hopes that people are watching them. To be known as her boyfriend plants him firmly in the social world, establishes him as an acceptable person, someone with a particular status, someone whose conversational silences are thoughtful rather than socially awkward."
I’m not sure I feel changed after reading Normal People, but I do feel upgraded. And reminded about how life is a series of relationships, and how a few of them help shape who we are and how we live our lives. And that thinking about that and acknowledging those who positively influence us is important. And yes, Sally Rooney has a fan in me. My current read is her first novel, Conversations with Friends.