Normal People. Are people normal? I don’t think so. I think we are weird and strange and contradictory and self-contradictory and life primarily in delusions and bubbles of pretense and make-believe. But maybe that’s me! “Normal” seems like a slur…
So the point is, I’m not entirely sure what drew me to this book: it wasn’t the title – although I was expecting the characters not to be normal and the title to be ironic – and it wasn’t the rather minimalistic cover. I’d not read anything else by Sally Rooney, although the cover lauds her previous Conversations with Friends … Oh yes, it was on the Man Booker longlist! And as I was reading other books, it seemed to be garnering a lot of publicity: it was nominated as the Waterstone’s Book of the Year, it crept into library top ten lists…
As a result, I really did go into this book blind, as it were with no expectations – and was met, somewhat disappointingly, by two teenagers making awkward small talk about school. So far, so normal!
Set in Carricklea, ireland, Rooney presents us with Marianne “still wearing her school uniform, but she’s taken off the sweater, so it’s just the blouse and skirt, and she has no shoes on, only tights” and Connell in the opening pages and her focus never leaves them throughout the whole novel. And who are Marianne and Connell? Marianne is the socially superior, awkward and outcast intellectual in the school to whom it
seemed so obviously insane to her then that she should have to dress up in a costume every morning and be herded around a huge building all day, and that she wasn’t even allowed to move her eyes where she wanted, even her eye movements fell under the jurisdiction of school rules. You’re not learning if you’re staring out the window daydreaming, Mr Kerrigan said. Marianne, who had lost her temper by then, snapped back: Don’t delude yourself, I have nothing to learn from you.
And Connell is equally intellectual but her opposite in every way: sporty, popular and (superficially at least) socially accepted, but from a working class single mother from a vaguely criminal family. Connell’s mother, Lorraine, in fact, cleans for Marianne’s mother and they form another pair of opposites: where Lorraine is a warm, generous and loving mother, Denise is cold, distant and indirectly – directly at times – cruel.
Somewhat inevitably, Connell and Marianne end up together whilst at school and Rooney certainly doesn’t shy away from the physicality of their relationship. It’s not graphic or pornographic in any way but it is a very real part of their relationship throughout the novel. Which does make me wonder how those library visitors – you may insert your own (admittedly cliched and inaccurate) stereotypical image of an older library user here – reacted to it!
That’s so good, she kept saying. That feels so good. Her body was all soft and white like flour dough. He seemed to fit perfectly inside her. Physically it just felt right, and he understood why people did insane things for sexual reasons then. In fact he understood a lot of things about the adult world that had previously seemed mysterious. But why Marianne? It wasn’t like she was so attractive. Some people thought she was the ugliest girl in school. What kind of person would want to do this with her? And yet he was there, whatever kind of person he was, doing it. She asked him if it felt good and he pretended he didn’t hear her. She was on her hands and knees so he couldn’t see her facial expression or read into it what she was thinking. After a few seconds she said in a much smaller voice: Am I doing something wrong? He closed his eyes.
No, he said. I like it.
Her breath sounded ragged then. He pulled her hips back against his body and then released her slightly. She made a noise like she was choking. He did it again and she told him she was going to come. That’s good, he said.
There is something I found disconcerting about the narrative voice of the novel – throughout but especially in the sexual moments. A disconnect. A distance. It felt in these moments almost voyeuristic. I’m not sure whether, in the throes of passion, I’d be inclined to rhetorically question what kind of person I was!
It is perhaps a result of the structure of the chapters: each chapter occurs a few weeks or months after the previous one and is written in the present tense interspersed with recollections and commentaries on what has happened in the intervening time. That’s a hard trick to pull off and balance the past and present, and Rooney manages it with great skill and confidence, but it does mean that, for large sections of the novel, the structure creates a distance between the story and the reader.
And, personally, I didn’t find the two main characters terribly likeable. Connell was rather monosyllabic in dialogue and tags “obviously” on the end of every utterance. “No. Yeah. Obviously.” is genuinely a quotation from him. And this from a student at Trinity in Dublin, studying English Literature. I may not have been the most eloquent University student myself but I think I did progress beyond that level. Obviously. And – oh my God – the miscommunications between the two of them! Connell’s failure to be open about their relationship in school, his inability to ask Marianne whether he can stay with her when he loses his flat, his neglecting to tell her he was applying to a creative writing course in New York…
The novel is almost like a dance as Marianne and Connell come together as lovers, drift apart, return as friends, become lovers, drift away with other unsuitable partners, return to each other again. Both struggle to find an identity and stability – Marianne taking on the role as a submissive in a couple of relationships, Connell struggling with anxiety and depression – and Rooney does integrate hints of that earlier in the novel: having finished and casting an eye over the openings, comments like this
about what a secretive, independent-minded person Marianne was, that she could come over to his house and let him have sex with her, and she felt no need to tell anyone about it. She just let things happen, like nothing meant anything to her.
show how Rooney had prepared the way. But, was I fully convinced by the presentation? I’m not sure I was, if I’m honest.
Where Rooney was great was at presenting her characters’ emotions with a physicality. From the opening, when Connell talks to Marianne,
he has a sense of total privacy between them. He could tell her anything about himself, even weird things, and she would never repeat them, he knows that. Being alone with her is like opening a door away from normal life and then closing it behind him…
Well, I like you, Marianne says.
For a few seconds he says nothing, and the intensity of the privacy between them is very severe, pressing in on him with an almost physical pressure on his face and body.
And in terms of plot, I suppose like normality, whatever that may be, Rooney doesn’t particularly introduce one: there are no antagonists as such, no real threats to either character; no sense of tension or of climax, none of the typical narrative plot arcs that we are used to. Things happen to people. Those things affect the people they happen to. Sometimes positively; sometimes negatively. Some lessons are learned; many mistakes are repeated.
It’s an unusual read.
And terribly hard to judge on anything as crude as a star rating system. But, that is the limit of my ability and range at the moment so…
Plot / Pace: ⭐⭐⭐
Publisher: Faber and Faber
Date: August 2018