Wednesday 6 February 2019

Normal People, Sally Rooney

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Marianne and Connell go to the same school in a small town in Ireland – he is popular, she is a loner, her family is wealthy, his mother is a cleaner for hers. They regularly encounter each other when he comes to collect his mother at the end of her shift. It comes as no surprise that they become more than friends, although Connell refuses to acknowledge Marianne at school, a fact that she accepts without argument. In these early days we see the seeds of what will become severe problems for them later – Connell’s social anxiety and Marianne’s lack of self-worth. As they grow and their lives change they are always drawn back to each other.

Marianne’s character feels the more fully developed. We gradually witness the family life that results in her submissiveness with men. There are scenes of abuse that are deeply unsettling. Her seeming determination to put herself in degrading, unhappy situations is hard to read, although you understand how she got there. Connell seems a less complex character, his anxiety never explored in much depth (although there is a touching scene when he seeks the help of a counsellor that is brilliantly written), only being mentioned sporadically, he feels less fully formed. Despite their difficulties, they have a sense of freedom with each other that they don’t always fight for but as a reader you will urge them to.

The chapter headings suggest a linear narrative (five months later, two weeks later, etc) yet frequently we are taken back in time, filling in gaps that arise from the time hops. The structure does maintain a tantalising sensation as a scene ends and suddenly it’s five month later and there’s so much you want to know of what happened in between.

As the title suggests, nothing extraordinary happens; the two protagonists are normal young adults trying to navigate their way into adulthood. It is messy and fraught and there’s no neat endings. It is a well-observed depiction of modern life with all the personal dramas it entails. I was disappointed that by the end, certainly one, if not both, hadn’t really developed psychologically as a result of their relationship, and yet this adds a sense of reality – there is no easy fix where the wounds of time suddenly heal. A contemplative, relatable book.

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  1. I'm so glad you found Connell underdeveloped too. I struggled to find (m)any reviews that really addressed this. Have you read Milkman? That felt like a much more complete novel and I can see why it wiw the Booker .

    1. I haven't read Milkman but perhaps I will give it a go.