Normal People is the second novel by young Dublin-based author Sally Rooney, closely following her memorable début in the form of Conversations with Friends (2017). With regards it stylistic and thematic concerns, the book recalls its predecessor; yet Rooney’s depiction of the short-lived ménage à quatre undergoes both dilation and condensation in the plot of Normal People, which traces a volatile, nebulous and not exactly conventional friendship over the course of five years.
The scene is set in Carricklea, a provincial, claustrophobic fictional town in County Sligo. Connell, son of a working-class single mother, and Marianne, daughter of her employer, are in their late teens at the novel’s opening. Known to each other since childhood, it is only then that the familiarity between them begins to take a form of something secretive and intimate. In the ensuing years, from Carricklea to Dublin with occasional interludes in mainland Europe, their personal histories converge and diverge ‘like two little plants sharing the same pot of soil’—uncontrollably restless, competing for primacy, yet ultimately dependant on each other as their exclusive source of life, love and hope.
The semblance of clear chronology, established by the precise designation of ‘[month], [year]’ as chapter titles, is largely deceptive. Rooney’s narrator is pathologically prone to digressions and never fails to string one occurrence with the next with flashbacks that have been mounted so thoughtfully in their frames that the past becomes a centrepiece of the present. The chapters, like a succession of ripples left by the same boulder, cannot exist without tremblingly reaching out towards what precedes and what follows.
Likewise the voice of the narrator, without the slightest tinge of self-indulgence or unreliability, melts imperceptibly into the speech and thoughts of the protagonists, both of whom speak without quotation marks and think in free indirect discourse. This shrewdly executed surface unity makes occasional discords and inconsistencies between perspectives, or between talking and feeling all the more conspicuous and troubling. The most extraordinary aspect of the book is its honesty—an honesty that, paradoxically, lies in the characters’ failure to understand, and be understood.
Clare Kilroy writes of Conversations that Rooney ‘is not a visual writer’; Normal People proves her to be far from the truth. The author’s responsible anatomy of human psychology goes hand-in-hand with a sparse and quasi-impressionist depiction of landscape, houses, faces and clothing which functions much like props of a stage—reductive, necessary, verging on the symbolic—and which lends the novel beauty in the same way its psychological realism lends it truth.
Though appraised as a ‘Salinger for the Snapchat generation’, there is no reason to associate Normal People with a post-technology, post-truth millennial mentality. The offhand mention of Facebook and Instagram exists on the same contextual plane as Sinn Fein or Edward Snowden; it is no more than a by-product of their time, our time, set against the timelessness of the novel’s other elements. Call it pathetic, call it strategic if you will, yet everything comes down, again, to honesty.
Normal People is concerned, above all else, with what it means to be so close to someone that sometimes one thinks ‘nothing good has ever come of it’. It is not meant as a cheerful read, saturated as it is with frustration and despair, regret and loss; yet the impotence of dependence is once and again redeemed by forgiveness, by sacrifice, by the touch of lips on skin, and the silence in which people falls asleep in each other’s arms. There may be nothing as painful—nothing as beautiful either.
Overall, a frank and irresistible love-song that will change anyone, normal or otherwise.
Normal People, Sally Rooney, Faber & Faber, 288 pages, Kindle, paperback and hardback editions available on Amazon