Poignant modern romance confronting the difficulty of self-acceptance
By a long way my most recent choice so far for The Reading List, Sally Rooney’s Normal People, like so much contemporary fiction, seemed to completely pass me by when it was released in 2018. It has sold a ridiculously large number of copies, and was long-listed for the 2019 Women’s Prize for Fiction. With people back home in the UK raving about the BBC’s TV adaptation, I thought the time had finally come for me to give it a go.
I must admit to being slightly confused by this novel. All the signs are there that I loved it: I read it in about two days, rushing to read more of it whenever I got the chance, stayed up well past my bedtime (!) to finish it, and thought about it when I wasn’t actually reading it. But now I have finished, my feelings towards it are slightly more ambivalent. The story of Marianne and Connell, from their teenage life in Carricklea to their university years at Trinity College Dublin (whose library featured in my 5 Fascinating sites you can visit online list), it has some truly insightful moments, and tells a deeply humane story. At no point are the characters hard to believe, and in fact they are very relatable (that most cherished of millennial compliments). The story deals with upsetting subject matter – depression, domestic abuse, sexuality – in a mostly sensitive fashion. The reviews I was hearing of the TV show promised emotional devastation, but the novel deals in greater subtleties than this, always focusing on little human details and quiet moments, somehow managing to perfectly suggest the smallest but deepest of human expressions.
The characters attend university in the same years that I did, and it was kind of shocking to read such an objectively good novel set in a recent past I was so familiar with. A lot has been made of the book as an Irish novel – it is almost exclusively set in Ireland, is peppered with references to Irish small-town life, and deals with the centre–periphery elitism of Dublin. I am the last person to be able to judge how successful it is as an Irish novel, and there is probably a whole layer of meaning that I am missing out on by not knowing this context first-hand. But what I will say is that the story has a universality completely untied from its specific setting. The struggle of moving from a backwater to a big city, the hope of finding ‘like-minded’ people at university (and subsequent disappointments), the novelty then failure of friendships and relationships – it all felt very familiar. The descriptions of class distinction and elitism at Trinity are almost word-for-word things I have seen and heard at Oxford. Perhaps this is one of the book’s strengths: picking out what we all know about human experience from specific circumstances and relationships.
In a way my reading of the novel was almost a reflection of that same process of novelty then disappointment. We put our hopes into a person only to have them fail. It would be too much to say that the book failed, but it did leave me feeling strangely deflated. As in life, the characters get the redemption that is handed to them, rather than the one we feel they deserve. I found the suggested links between domestic abuse and sado-masochism uncomfortable. The suggestion that women simply allow men to carry out power fantasies on them because they themselves feel damaged strikes as reductive and outdated. But Rooney seems to be aware of this, one character joking he is ‘old-fashioned’ for not wanting to partake of such practices. Ultimately the novel is about the power men have over women, and women wanting to give in to this. It has been lauded as a feminist novel, but something about the resolution of these explorations feels a little, dare I say it, un-feminist. I wanted a more explicitly feminist arc from a new novel written by a woman the same age as me. But maybe I’m just not being realistic. The novel is rooted firmly in the real world, and in the real world there are still a lot of women trapped, emotionally or otherwise, in what are essentially patriarchal relationships, even if they are happy ones. Women who rely on male validation, permission, for their self-worth.
Some people have complained about the novel’s presentation and structure. Rooney doesn’t use speech marks, which takes a few pages to get used to, but soon you won’t notice any difference. I like the sense of immediacy this gives the text, and of blurring the lines between speech and thought. There is, almost literally, nothing between what a character says and what they think. The novel plays out at intervals of several months, with reflections on the events of the previous months. At times this drags a little, but it is an interesting way to unfold the relationships between characters.
It sometimes feels that Rooney is at her best when she is freed from the necessity of telling a story. Her broader comments on society (culture as class performance, grief in the age of social media), are tied to but move beyond the plot, and are the points where she seems to express herself most clearly and with greatest eloquence. A passage on deer reads more like a poem, and I could have happily read it as a standalone piece.
The tragedy and peril have been overcome by the end of the book, and, unexpectedly, I think we can say it has something of a happy ending. It was a thought-provoking read which will lead you to reflect on your own relationships. That the politics of the plot did not precisely align with my own is hardly a criticism, and in fact it could be a comment on how well-written the characters are that I was so rooting for them. It’s a book that, also to my surprise, I would be interested in revisiting a few years down the line. Rooney has woven a deeply involving story about how two people can change each other’s lives, and help each other to overcome their fears. Despite the hype you probably won’t need a box of tissues, but it’s worth giving yourself time to process this oddly moving, realistic, and thought-provoking novel. I look forward to reading what Rooney produces next.
What did you think of Normal People? Should I give the TV show a go or is it better to stick to the novel? I’d like to read Rooney’s other novel, Conversations with Friends; have you read it? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!