Faber and Faber
Normal People, Sally Rooney’s successor to her debut hit Conversations with Friends is exactly what it says on the tin, if you subscribe to the idea that no one’s actually what we might think of as normal at all. Complicated, yes. Emotional and irrational and level-headed and serious all at once, also yes. But the very concept of being normal is utterly dismantled on the examination of one’s own self, even before you think about the oddballs and misfits that make up the people in your life.
Marianne and Connell are two Leaving Cert students in the same school, in a small town in Mayo. Connell’s mother works for Marianne’s family as a cleaner, which would indicate that there’s a social chasm in Marianne’s favour between the two, until it’s revealed that Connell is a popular, bright student with intellectual as well as athletic leanings that place him at the top of the social rung. Marianne on the other hand is a weirdo fish out of water without the wherewithal to fit in with her peers, instead preferring to argue with them to oblivion in class, alienating herself with her intellect.
They’re not exactly unfamiliar characters, but Rooney’s intense capacity for insight into human behaviour brings them to life on the page, from their initial flirtation, through to the flowering of their relationship and on to Trinity College, where inevitably their roles are reversed. Marianne discovers how to use her veiled beauty, too sophisticated for their small Irish hometown and Connell struggles to fit in with those without an interest in GAA. These students prefer to flaunt their parents’ wealth and show up to parties wearing red trousers and carrying good champagne rather than the Buckfast and cans of Dutch Gold most college students would be content with.
Connell and Marianne return home from college for Christmas, where characters who had indulged in some low-key, surreptitious bullying of Marianne have realised the errors of their ways, stumbled through apologies and integrated her into their group. There’s a distinct maturing between the school and college years, casting light on the development of character as life goes on – they’re normal, complicated people. The writing style echoes these characters; it seems effortless and simple at first and it’s only later you realise there’s a poetry beneath the initial starkness.
There’s no questioning Rooney’s skills as a writer – her sometimes uncomplicated, simple prose is offset beautifully by gorgeous descriptive phrases and keen observations; she’s a talent and no mistake. So perhaps my issue with Normal People is that it’s a familiar tale, a coming of age story charting the characters from age 18 to 22 during the course of the novel, maturing and finding themselves but still retaining the gaucheness that undercuts their emotional naivety. If it wasn’t so skilfully written it could well have been marketed as Young Adult.
Or is it actually a fairy tale, of sorts? The only developed characters are Marianne and Connell (of course, they are the only two that matter, overall the story is an out and out romance), other characters are stock – panto villain (Marianne’s brother) belligerent overlord (Marianne’s mother) kindly and wise woman in service (Connell’s mother) school and college friends are periphery characters.
There’s no joy in not particularly getting the hype surrounding a book after reading it. It’s not that I don’t think Normal People is good – it is. But does it deserve the gushing, will it be robbed if it doesn’t nab the Man Booker prize? I don’t think so. As of last Thursday it hadn’t even made the shortlist, perhaps implying that I’m not the only one who didn’t think it was as important as a great many critics are professing it to be.
Saying that, the characters are likable, their youthful misunderstandings really well realised, the other indiscretions and idiosyncrasies too – late teens and 20s is when sex is literally the most important aspect of life, apart from playing at being adults – drinking wine, taking up smoking, bit of drug taking, one-up-man ship designed to make them feel mature. It would just be interesting to see where they are in ten, twenty years’ time.
It may be the bare, raw imagining of youthfulness, with no frills, no quests for the characters to ascend to, to prove their extraordinariness that has charmed readers, some currently identifying with them, others reminiscing with a few year’s distance. Even if it’s not the next great classic it’s still an admirable feat of capturing a specific and special time in an ordinary life that, without being guided by a fanfare, is a formidable read.
First published in The Tuam Herald on 03.10.18