I have to admit, I had no idea about the hype surrounding this book or its author Sally Rooney when I first picked it up.
It was only after I had finished reading this, her second novel, that I discovered it had been selected for this year’s Man Booker Prize longlist, with the extra kicker being that it had been selected even before it was published. (The longlist was announced on July 23, while the book was published on Aug 28; it didn’t make the shortlist that was announced on Sept 20.)
I’m not generally one for literary fiction, being more of the escapist type of reader rather than an intellectual one, but the advance review copy’s blurb really caught my attention.
It said: “Normal People is a love story about how difficult it is to talk about how we feel. It shows us how we can change each other’s lives – perhaps in small ways, but deeply and enduringly.”
This certainly resonated with me, as it probably does with a lot of you, dear readers.
I’m sure many of us have wondered if we had just said or done something differently in certain situations that things might have turned out quite differently. And I’m sure some of us can remember some small comment or gesture that, while seemingly casual or spontaneous to the other person, turned out to have a disproportionately large effect on us.
Marianne and Connell are schoolmates in the town of Carricklea, Ireland. To describe them in cliched American terms, Connell is the popular nice-boy jock, while Marianne is the ridiculed misfit outsider.
But this is only within the school community. Outside, Connell and Marianne, brought together regularly by the fact that Connell’s mother cleans Marianne’s large family home, have a friendly relationship. They soon become more than friends a dozen or so pages into the book, but agree to keep their relationship completely secret, largely for the sake of Connell’s reputation.
Although Marianne generally doesn’t mind the secrecy, all it takes is Connell asking the most popular (and mean) girl in their year to the school dance, to send her spiralling into depression. She drops out of school, but still manages to make it into Trinity College, Dublin, where Connell, whose application there was influenced by her, is also accepted.
There, the situation is reversed: Marianne is the popular one, while Connell has problems making friends – a not-so-subtle dig at classist attitudes within the student community. They reconnect as friends, and later, again as lovers.
But all it takes is one miscommunication between them to split them apart again, although their friendship suffers less this time around. It also triggers off a particular personal side of Marianne that is rather worrying, and the thread of how she and Connell deal with it forms an important part of the emotional subtext of the story.
When described simply, Normal People is a rather normal tale of two people missing the boat with each other repeatedly, despite the strength of their feelings for one another. Part of the draw is, of course, about whether they get together in the end or not, although as a warning, the ending might be a tad ambiguous for some.
But Rooney’s prose draws one in, despite her rather annoying lack of quotation marks – yes, the reader has to figure out which lines are dialogue on their own – and her chronologically-linear chapter presentations that prove rather false as she employs a fair number of flashbacks within them.
According to The Guardian newspaper, she has been described as “the Jane Austen of the precariat” or “Salinger for the Snapchat generation”. Personally, while I’m not quite sure Rooney deserves such dazzling comparisons, she does write a good study of human behaviour.
Normal People, I feel, has a lot to offer the more introspective reader and is likely to particularly resonate with young adults and those who like to think about the human psyche.
Author: Sally Rooney
Publisher: Faber & Faber, literary fiction