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A SUNDAY TIMES BESTSELLER
LONGLISTED FOR THE MAN BOOKER PRIZE 2018
'The best novel published this year.' Times
Connell and Marianne grow up in the same small town in rural Ireland. The similarities end there; they are from very different worlds. When they both earn places at Trinity College in Dublin, a connection that has grown between them lasts long into the following years.
This is an exquisite love story about how a person can change another person's life - a simple yet profound realisation that unfolds beautifully over the course of the novel. It tells us how difficult it is to talk about how we feel and it tells us - blazingly - about cycles of domination, legitimacy and privilege. Alternating menace with overwhelming tenderness, Sally Rooney's second novel breathes fiction with new life.
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In what is at first glance a contemporary love story about millennial students, Normal People manages to be entirely accessible. Sally Rooney writes her characters and dialogue so naturally that it’s hard not to care about them; the overused and patronising term ‘snowflake’ didn’t cross my mind once.
Marianne and Connell are coming to the end of their school years. Their social class sets them apart, as does their popularity at school. Marianne is from a wealthy family but is an outcast at school. Connell’s mother cleans Marianne’s family home, but at school he enjoys the status of a popular player on the football team.
Having been thrown together and experiencing a connection, the two begin an on / off relationship / friendship. They traverse the challenges of school and university social structures. They explore and discover their sexuality, character, intellect, past trauma and mental health. It’s more than just a love story, but written in such an understated way that you never feel that ‘issues’ are being discussed.
Sally Rooney’s subtle but affecting novel also manages to resist the gimmicky trappings of the modern world. Mobile phones and Facebook are mentioned, but do not direct the action. Connell plays FIFA but there is no preoccupation with online communication. Indeed, when he and Marianne embark on a period of email correspondence, he composes his emails in a way that is more reminiscent of the lost art of letterwriting than textspeak.
I began my degree in 1997, when you had to go to the computer room to send an email. During this year these characters would have been about three, if we assume that they are around 17 when the story picks up in 2011. This thought makes me feel impossibly old and the assumption could be that this story isn’t for my eyes. But it is. Sally Rooney manages to paint distinct yet universal characters who speak to the adolescent in all of us. She conveys beautifully the shock that we all go through when we realise that the complex society of school is actually an illusion.
Part of what makes this story so engaging is the clever timeline structure. The narrative tense is present, but we are aware from the very clear chapter headings (Three Months Later, November 2011) that the action happens in the past. In addition, the present narratives regularly take a dip back into the recent past to explain the couple’s relationship at that particular present. This allows us the window into both Marianne and Connell’s frank emotional expression that is often confused in their exchanges with each other. We understand the root of Marianne’s feelings of worthlessness, for example, or Connell’s dips into anxiety and depression.
The brutally frank narrative also opens up the sex scenes in this story to become something very much more meaningful. There is an openness and graphic description that is startling at first. However, in keeping with the narrative tone, the narrative extends to how Marianne and Connell are affected emotionally by their sexual exchanges. Both with each other and the alternative partners who drift into and out of their lives over the four years of the book.
Similarly, the ebbs and flows of both Marianne and Connell’s mental health are tackled with stark openness whilst avoiding over explanation. A lot is hinted at, including child abuse, sexual abuse, bullying, eating disorders, chronic anxiety, manic depression, suicide. To list all this makes the book sound heavy going. It’s not. It manages to maintain a positive and hopeful tone throughout, perhaps because all of these darker aspects are simply normalised, recognised and accepted.
Which is where the characters find salvation. There is no ‘reader, I married him’ here. The story is about love between two people, yes. However it is moreover about how those people have grown with each other, improved each other (on the whole) and are a continually evolving entity. That evolution will continue beyond the end of the book, as is true in life. And so we leave Marianne and Connell with feelings of hope and optimism, if not a final ending. Which is good enough for me.