Sally Rooney, Normal People

Sally Rooney Normal People. Faber and Faber hardback, 2018

This is going to be controversial.

Two young people are finding their feet in post-crash Ireland as they leave sixth form for university and beyond. Published when she was just 27, Sally Rooney’s second novel Normal People has had a sensational success. Costa Winner, Waterstones book of the something – year? Month? I know when I bought a copy for Mrs TD they had it stacked high everywhere, and the staff at checkout were all wearing Normal People badges. At first I thought it was an off-colour statement about their view of their customers.

When she’d finished it Mrs TD insisted I read it to compare notes. I’m afraid I was less enthusiastic than she was, and certainly less than most of the gushing reviews in the media.

Sally Rooney Normal People coverIt’s been hailed as a zeitgeist novel, capturing the ‘collective precariousness’ (Guardian) of our times – not just personal but economic and political. I can’t say that’s what I took from the novel. And Rooney is said to have got into the heads of her two love-lorn protagonists, Connell and Marianne as they learn to come to terms with their sexual and emotional hangups.

That same Guardian piece by Sian Cain added the rider that these two are ‘over-educated, neurotic, and slightly too self-aware’ – Connell sees himself early on as politically astute and feels poised to engage in intelligent, sophisticated discussions about the Greek crisis at smart dinner parties when he leaves home. But, Cain concludes, Rooney avoids the pitfalls of ‘hysterical realism’ by showing, for example, how sincerely engrossed Connell becomes in his reading of Jane Austen. She insists we’re less concerned with the overblown context and focus on whether these two insecure adolescents will manage to find happiness together as they do their damnedest to break up.

I never became that invested in their fate, I’m afraid. I found them rather irritating – a sort of Roddy Doyle version of The Inbetweeners (both of which, I think, do what they do in a less ambitious way, but more successfully). Maybe because I taught that age group for so long. It was like reading an account of a normal day at work.

The dialogue is brilliantly handled, as others have said – but to what end? Sure, this is a sensitive and deftly done examination of maturing sensibilities, learning to realise that love is complicated and often painful, and sex is more than recreation.

There’s a lot of graphic sex, angst and teen slang and syntax – Yeah, he says. No – is one of Connell’s habitual contradictory responses to questions (Rooney dispenses with punctuation of direct speech, for some reason). I suppose he’s so shy and messed up he can’t commit to even the simplest of prompts, let alone negotiate owning up to his laddish mates that he’s having sex with a girl thought to be a weirdo, and who harbours masochistic tendencies as a consequence of her abusive upbringing.

I know this response sounds a bit harsh, and I did find the emerging horrors of the cruel treatment Marianne endured from childhood at the hands of her brutal father and brother almost unbearably moving. Normal People does give an unusually frank and (so far as I can tell) honest and accurate portrayal of young love’s traumas, mistakes and betrayals.

But I still prefer Jane Austen’s approach in Emma.

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8 thoughts on “Sally Rooney, Normal People

  1. [“I never became that invested in their fate, I’m afraid. I found them rather irritating – a sort of Roddy Doyle version of The Inbetweeners (both of which, I think, do what they do in a less ambitious way, but more successfully). Maybe because I taught that age group for so long. It was like reading an account of a normal day at work.”]

    LOVE IT. This reminds me a little of other “of the moment” young 20-something writers. Thinking of Tama Janowitz, who is my age, and whose coming-of-age-in-New-York-City collection of stories “Slaves of New York” was a sensation at the time, and seems to have become a modern classic since.

    After not writing a book since 2005, Janowitz came out in 2016 with a very well-received memoir, of her passage from the “Lit Girl” of 80’s New York to the stage of “living past youth” in a tiny town in upstate New York, dealing with sarcastic and dismissive adolescent kids, death, caregiving to a father with dementia, and the homely daily duties of “poodle wrestling,” etc. It is hard to be glamorous and cool in our 50’s and 60’s!

    The memoir sounds raw, blunt, and equally as astutely observed as “Slaves of New York.”

    Thinking a bit of Yeats as well, from his windswept, Celtic tinged youth, through the hurly burly of life to become the grim, granite Elder Poet who urged the Horseman “Pass by!”

    • Am I right in thinking Slaves was televised or filmed? I seem to remember a rather alternative sort of female character, maybe along the lines of Madonna in Desperately Seeking Susan? Surely we can still be glam and cool once we pass 50?!

  2. Well, *be* controversial, Simon! We can’t all like the same thing and I honestly don’t think it would be for me. Perhaps I’m just too old and crabby to identify with young lovers, although the couples’ background does sound pretty awful. And definitely the style sounds like something I would struggle with….

    • I did wonder if I was inviting a backlash (John Self tweeted along those lines in response to my link there!) Mrs TD reminded me that it wasn’t just the father and brother who were cruel to Marianne – her mother was too, maybe more in a psychological way. So as a study of a damaged young woman adapting to adult relationships, it has some good insights. Just wasn’t entirely to my taste. And yes, it’s good to have different takes on a text. I can see why this novel has struck a chord with so many.

  3. Well, I did think I might have been in Mrs TD’s camp, I did enjoy it, but I can also understand your point of view. It was an enjoyable read, but not the best thing I’ve ever read. I saw it being promoted in a well known bookshop where it was being excessivily marketed. I wonder if that was what influenced me to read it and my view of it – how could I not like it if all these people were acclaiming it as the best thing! Must be more confident in my own views ( lesson to self)

    • Hype has to some extent taken over from critical judgement in the book world, in the high street anyway. Use independent bookshops where you’re more likely to get objective and well informed advice. Big chains are in the business of shifting units

  4. Let me just say that I love it when there’s a review like this from someone whose opinion I trust.
    I was deeply suspicious about the hype over this book because it appeared to come straight out of Narcissism 101. You have saved me from feeling even the slightest temptation if I see it on the shelves at the OpShop, or even for free at the library.
    IMO Goethe cornered the market for Narcissism 101 back in 1774 with The Sorrows of Young Werther, and there is nothing more that needs to be said.

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