2018 Man Booker Review: Normal People

6th September 2018

Normal People, Sally Rooney

Faber & Faber, London, 2018

Reviewed by Jill Glenn

A year after I assumed the hype around Sally Rooney’s first novel, ‘Conversations with Friends’, was overstated, and made a conscious decision not to engage with her ‘fresh voice’, I reluctantly take up ‘Normal People’ as part of my 2018 Man Booker allocation.

I am – to my very great cynical surprise – immediately beguiled by its delicacy and deftness of touch. From the start, I can tell that I am in safe hands; indeed, more than safe. She has great mastery of the material and an ability to flesh out a character in just a couple of sentences.

We begin in a smart kitchen in County Sligo, with two teenagers: Marianne, who lives there, and Connell, her classmate, who is there to collect his mother, Marianne’s family’s cleaner. Connell is popular and easy-going, a regular guy, a football team hero; Marianne is awkward, uncompromising, an outsider both at home and school (‘She has no friends and spends her lunchtimes alone reading novels’ ); both are academically gifted. The unorthodox connection between them is under-the-radar as far as school is concerned, and when their relationship becomes intimate this too remains private. Its very secrecy adds potency.

The story is simple enough; slight, even: an attentive account of their on-off relationship, played out mainly against the backdrop of rural Ireland and Trinity College, Dublin, in the years after the collapse of the Celtic Tiger. There’s a lot of alcohol, a lot of sex, a lot of pain – and plenty of dark undercurrents in what look like charmed lives. Rooney doesn’t shy away from difficult themes – co-dependency, abuse, the dynamics of unequal privilege, depression – but she handles them with ease and authenticity. She directs her characters’ pursuit of emotional intelligence with great emotional intelligence herself. Her dialogue is spot-on, and not set apart by inverted commas – a technique that can often feel clunky but that here smartly emphasises the connection between internal thought and external action. More than one critic has compared her to Jane Austen, and, with Rooney’s awareness of the disparity in the ways in which men and women experience the world, it’s not an unreasonable comparison. There is, despite its seriousness, something of a comedy of manners about it, too.

Structurally, ‘Normal People’ is very accomplished. Although blunt, time-linked chapter titles such as Two Months Later (April 2012) and Six Weeks Later (September 2012) imply uncomplicated linear progression, these are merely the points at which we take our next plunge into the story… which moves elegantly between past and present, layering up the details, pulling us further and further in. We miss nothing.

Rooney explores the impossibility of achieving honest communication, demonstrating how our behaviour, our sense of ourself, transmutes when we are in different places, with different people. How difficult it is, she points out, to say what we really feel. Despite the characters’ flaws and failings, their stop-start progression (will they / won’t they be together at the end…?), ’Normal People’ is profoundly reassuring about the ways in which love and friendship change and nourish us, however inadequately we can express that. It’s brave and moving and beautifully articulated. That Sally Rooney – she’s quite a fresh voice, you know. I’ll be adding ‘Conversations with Friends’ to my post-Booker reading list…

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