Sunday, 23 September 2018

Book review: Normal People, Sally Rooney (2018)

This beautiful and poignant coming-of-age story examines the personalities of, and the relationship that develops between, Connell Waldron and Marianne Sheridan, who go to the same school in Carricklea in County Sligo, the Republic of Ireland. Connell’s mother is Marianne’s mother’s cleaner and both adolescents are academically gifted. At the point in their lives when they get together, Marianne is the oddball at school and Connell a popular boy who is also good at sports and has lots of friends. They are in their final year of secondary school.

The first thing that really establishes a tone for the future in the novel is when Marianne convinces Connell to study English at university. They both enrol in the University of Dublin and both receive scholarships that have financial benefits attached, making Connell’s life much easier. Marianne, coming from a wealthy family, is less in need of the financial support that comes with the scholarship.

The rest of the novel is about how their lives interweave around one another, like threads that make up a twisted skein of wool used to create a precious garment. Rooney keeps you on the edge of your seat, and keeps you turning the pages, as you move forward in time watching the fey Marianne and the large-hearted Connell negotiate the stairway of success, where they occasionally trip, and sometimes fall.

Sometimes Rooney will start a chapter describing two people talking and you don’t immediately know who is there in the room. Is that Marianne Connell is talking with? If not, where is Marianne? This ruse keeps you alert to small changes in tone in the conversations you are witness to as the author develops the characters she has formulated in her mind. You are forced to pay attention. Marianne’s brother Alan is abusive and the reliques of that experience continue to shape her relations with other people. Connell’s mother had him when she was only 17 and he lives always with the shadow of penury darkening his horizon.

Rooney has managed to do something very rare and valuable in her book. The problems of inequality and domestic violence are oppressive for so many people, and she handles the issues that surround them with a calculating intent as she narrows her focus onto the feelings that especially Marianne has when she is vulnerable. The way that the political is shown to influence the personal is the great achievement of Rooney’s novel, and I recommend this book strongly to anyone interested in the younger generation, which Rooney has been labelled a representative of (she was born in 1991). But this should not be the only thing you associate with her. What she should be remembered for is her ability to articulate large social problems in terms of the artefacts that populate the consciousnesses of the individuals she creates.

For literary buffs, there is a curious small vignette in the novel set in Trieste, the city James Joyce lived in for a period of time during years he was fomenting his works of fiction. In that city, Joyce taught English to a businessman named Ettore Schmitz, who had published two novels under the pseudonym Italo Svevo in the final decade of the previous century. Many consider Svevo to have been the model for Leopold Bloom.

One particular point that struck me when reading Rooney’s novel was the role of the church. It’s as though there are unresolved issues with this institution that influence the way the author thinks about life in general. The scenes at the funeral for a schoolfriend of Connell’s are full of suppressed emotion, as though there were unspoken things animating the author as she constructed the passages in question. I think this is related to the strong undercurrent of violence that is discerned at different points in the book. I wanted to say more about this aspect of the novel but I couldn’t find the passages I was searching for when I went back after finishing it.

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