Normal People explores with superb precision the emotional complexity of an on-again, off-again relationship between two young people.
Irish writer Sally Rooney’s sudden fame seems too good to be true, especially considering she’s only twenty-seven years old. One is almost tempted to ignore all the hoopla. Her second novel, Normal People, has followed on quickly from her debut, Conversations With Friends.
Recently a reading copy of Normal People fell in my lap. Twenty pages in and I thought it was a bit slow. Despite this, I pressed on a bit further and soon found myself hooked. I didn’t want it to end.
The story concerns two university students, Marianne and Connell, and their on-again, off-again relationship. Both are navigating sex, friendships, study, school politics and careers. Marianne is complicated, with a troubled family history; she is perceived by her schoolmates as somewhere between awkward and freakish. She doesn’t know her place in the world, wonders if she’ll ever find it and borders on being masochistic. Connell is more “normal”, but as the novel progresses, we learn he has some serious mental health issues.
The novel is told episodically, with several months elapsing between chapters. Within the chapters the timelines jerk back and forth, detailing previous events then jumping forward. Marianne and Connell split up, start new relationships that fail, try to get back together, repeating this pattern over and over. They love each other, but somehow, due to their damaged natures, can’t maintain a normal relationship.
There are echoes of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar in Normal People. Rooney writes in a simple, concise language, exploring the deeper recesses of the psyche with delicacy and a striking clarity. Her ability to capture the things that are left unsaid between people, the strange and indecipherable moods we all experience, is uncanny. Rooney sticks to what she knows – the domestic, university life, friendships – creating fiction that has the ring of truth.
There is a brittleness and sensitivity in Normal People that makes you feel like you are holding in your hands a rare glass or tea cup. You can’t help but care deeply for Rooney’s characters, sympathising with their struggles.
A work of surprising maturity and insight.
Normal People, by Sally Rooney. Published by Faber. RRP: $29.99
Review by Chris Saliba