Normal People

Review From User :

Sally Rooney is the real deal

Normal People has been lavished with praise from critics, longlisted for the Man Booker prize and is being adapted for television by the BBC. And that's just in the first week!

All that attention will, no doubt, attract quite a few readers who would not ordinarily touch this subject with a barge pole. Because this book:

A) Is about young people
B) Is a love story (but not a 'romance')
C) Contains a fair bit of sex (which is crucial to the story, btw, and is not graphic)

All of which (possibly also the fact that the author is a 27-year-old woman) means that Normal People will inevitably be dismissed by some as frivolous. It isn't. This is a confident, accomplished and serious work.

Of Rooney's debut, Conversations with Friends, I said in my review it 'occasionally scrapes close to the bone'. Well, Normal People cuts to the core.

Normal People is not out to inspire, instruct, entertain or talk down to anyone, which makes it something of a refreshing anomaly in current fiction about young people. It is a novel (for anyone, young or old) that simply presents the truth of youthful experiences without the filters of nostalgia or sentimentality. It invites you to inhabit the psyche of someone else - two someone elses: Connell and Marianne - to identify with them and to feel their pain and turmoil. For the reader who connects to that, it is wracking.

The story focuses only on the pivotal moments for these two characters, jumping forward three weeks, six months, or five minutes, as needed, to excise all the uneventful bits of life and leave us with the most emotionally intense supercut possible. It follows them from high school in a small town, through their years at university in Dublin, as the dynamic between them shifts with their surroundings and social circle. They're not officially 'together' the whole time, or even most of the time, but they always figure in each other's lives in a significant way.

Sally Rooney writes with such precision that this all feels painfully true. She conjures the tension and emotion in a scene just from the way someone wrings out a dish sponge; she conveys the full weight of feeling from a look or a shrug. In Rooney's imagining, Connell and Marianne as separate entities are less important than the interplay between them - their relationship dynamic and the influence each of them has on shaping the other, that's the real stuff of this book:

"How strange to feel herself so completely under the control of another person, but also how ordinary. No one can be independent of other people completely, so why not give up the attempt, she thought, go running in the other direction, depend on people for everything, allow them to depend on you, why not."

There's irony here, and self-conscious posturing (though not nearly as much as in CWF), but earnestness, truth and kindness as well. In addition to the central relationship are issues of class and intellectual integrity. It's a particularly astute look at the rebuild of self that teenagers undergo in the transition from school to uni, how it allows some to thrive while others stumble, and in some ways is just an illusion after all.

So there's hype and there's backlash to the hype, and Normal People is sure to resonate powerfully with some readers and not at all for others. If you like a minutely observed novel about people and feelings that isn't mawkish, I'd say give it a go.

Connell and Marianne both grow up in the same town in rural Ireland. The similarities end there; they are from very different worlds. But they both get places to study at university in Dublin, and a connection that has grown between them despite the social tangle of school lasts long into the following years.

Sally Rooney’s second novel is a deeply political novel, just as it’s also a novel about love. It’s about how difficult it is to speak to what you feel and how difficult it is to change. It’s wry and seductive; perceptive and bold. It will make you cry and you will know yourself through it.

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