2019 Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year, Author, Book review, Faber and Faber, Fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, Literary prizes, Publisher, Reading Projects, Sally Rooney, Setting, TBR40

‘Normal People’ by Sally Rooney

Fiction – hardcover; Faber & Faber; 288 pages; 2018.

Sally Rooney’s Normal People has had so many rave reviews and won so many prizes and accolades — the latest, The Book of the Year at the British Book Awards, was bestowed last week — that I’m not sure I can add anything new to the conversation.

But what I can do is give you my reaction to this stylish novel, which is essentially an on-off romance between two people from the same Irish country town over the course of four years (2011 to 2015).

Brief overview

For those of you that may not yet have read the book, here’s a brief overview. Marianne and Connell both attend the same secondary school on the west coast of Ireland, but Marianne is in a different socio-economic class to Connell because Connell’s mother works as a cleaner at Marianne’s house.

The pair are different in other ways: Marianne is a loner and regarded by her classmates as a bit kooky and someone to avoid, while Connell is popular and good looking and leads a hectic social life.

But both are academically minded and good students, and this is what brings them to the attention of one another, a mutual respect for their brains and intellectual capabilities. Secretly, they become friends, then lovers, but no one knows about their relationship, which is kept hidden from fellow classmates — it’s really only Connell’s mother that twigs there’s something going on between the two of them.

The book charts the ups and downs of this unspecified relationship as the pair leave school, move from the village they’ve both grown up in and forge new lives in Dublin, where they attend Trinity, Marianne to study history and politics, Connell to study English.

Unusual structure

Normal People is structured in an interesting way. It’s very much a narrative composed of set pieces framed around scenes — in bedrooms, in kitchens, at parties, in cars — that are essentially people talking but which give great insight into the individual character’s thoughts and behaviours and fears and hopes.

Indeed, this is a dialogue driven novel but there is not a single quotation mark in sight. It’s written it in such a way that it’s perfectly clear when people are speaking and who is doing it. (I heard Sally Rooney speak at her only London event earlier this month where she explained that using quotation marks would just add extra clutter on the page that wasn’t needed. )

Paradoxically, it’s often the things that people don’t say in this story that provides it’s edgier moments: when characters hold back from making confessions or being completely honest or not making the most of the opportunity to steer the conversation in ways that would make their lives easier but which might cause pain or embarrassment in the short term.

The narrative itself jumps forward in spurts, with each chapter heading indicating how much time has passed since the last chapter  — for instance “Four Months Later (August 2011)” and “Three Months Later” (March 2014)” — giving a sense of movement and fast pace to what is essentially a deeply nuanced and measured story.

The UK paperback edition

But did I like it?

I have to admit that I thought the book dragged in places and I didn’t think there was enough tension between the characters. I wanted more action, perhaps more resolution, between Marianne and Connell. I kept waiting for something to happen, something big that would formalise their relationship or finish it. I don’t think it’s a plot spoiler to say that this doesn’t happen.

But what I did like — and it took me awhile to come to this realisation — is the ways in which Marianne and Connell’s relationship is influenced by the exterior forces of class and money, by their own sense of self-worth (or lack thereof) and desire to be “normal”, and their inherent mutual attraction regardless of circumstance or upbringing. I also liked how Rooney occasionally shows how some issues, such as domestic violence, cut across the class divide. (It wasn’t until I heard Rooney speak at the event I attended that I discovered she calls herself a Marxist; with hindsight I can very much see that influence in her work, though I would not call this book political; it’s much more subtle than that.)

Normal People is essentially a universal story about individuals finding their place in a world that is complex, one that has obstacles in place which may hinder opportunities for success, whether because of class, gender or upbringing. And yet it also shows how social mobility is (occasionally) possible, how we can influence each other for the better and find ways to seek love and happiness against the odds. It ends on a hopeful note.

That said, I still liked Conversations with Friends better.

Added extra

If you are interested, this is the aforementioned event I attended at the beginning of May, which has been recorded in full by the London Review of Books, which hosted the evening in the gorgeous surrounds of St George’s Church in Bloomsbury, London.

This is my 3rd book for the 2019 Kerry Group Novel of the Year Award and my 19th for #TBR40. I bought it late last year after a member of my book group raved about it. I treated myself to the Waterstones’ exclusive hardback edition.

Author, Book review, Faber and Faber, Fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, Publisher, Sally Rooney, Setting

‘Conversations with Friends’ by Sally Rooney

Fiction – hardcover; Faber and Faber; 336 pages; 2017. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

I came to Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends with a healthy dose of skepticism. I’d heard so much about this book after it won the Sunday Times/PFD Young Writer Award 2017 that I was positive it couldn’t live up to the hype. I was wrong.

This debut novel is a perfectly pitched mood piece about what it is like to be in your 20s, that horribly messy time when you’re discovering adult responsibilities and trying to figure out where you fit in the grand scheme of things. Reading it was like being dragged back to my own youth when I didn’t really know what I wanted to do with my life and felt torn between the uncertainty of the future and the cosy comfort of the past.

First person narrative

Rooney puts us firmly into the head of 21-year-old Frances, a university student doing an internship at a publishing company in Dublin. She’s super smart, quick-witted and cool, but lacks any drive to make something of herself.

I hadn’t been kidding with Philip about not wanting a job. I didn’t want one. I had no plans as to my future financial stability: I never wanted to earn money for doing anything. I’d had various minimum wage jobs in previous summers — sending emails, making cold calls, things like that — and I expected to have more of them after I graduated. Though I knew that I would eventually have to enter full-time employment, I certainly never fantasised about a radiant future where I was paid to perform an economic role. Sometimes this felt like a failure to take an interest in my own life, which depressed me. On the other hand, I felt that disinterest in wealth was ideologically healthy.

Together with best friend, Bobbi, who was once her girlfriend, the pair perform spoken word poetry, which draws the attention of an influential journalist called Melissa. Melissa inveigles her way into their lives as a way of getting to know them better for the profile piece she plans to write. She draws them into her inner circle of  friends, invites them to her stylish home for wild dinner parties and introduces them to her husband, a good-looking actor called Nick.

The first-person narrative largely charts the ups and downs between these four characters as alliances are forged, secrets are kept from one another and loyalties are tested to the limit. There are betrayals, petty grievances and racuous arguments, too.

Much of the storyline moves ahead through dialogue — clever, whipsmart dialogue, it has to be said, the kind of dialogue that is flippant and facetious in order to hide the fragility of those making the cutting remarks. The conversations between Frances and Bobbi, a strong-minded, occasionally abrasive personality, are laced with humour and wordplay, but they are never emotionally intimate: they hold each other at a distance, despite having once being lovers.

Honesty, with others and oneself, forms the crux point of the novel. This is exemplified by Frances embarking on an affair with Nick, a man 11 years her senior, whom she becomes slightly obsessed about. She expends a serious amount of energy trying to keep the relationship secret from Nick’s wife and Bobbi, and it later leads to her undoing, but along the way she learns to confront her own fears and vulnerabilities. It’s an extraordinary portrait of one woman’s coming of age, but it’s also an insightful look at the bonds of female friendship.

Conversations with Friends won’t be for everyone, but I found it a rather astonishing, heart-rending and compassionate read and I can’t wait to pick up Rooney’s new one, Normal People, as soon as my Shadow Giller Prize reading is over…