Reviewed by Magdalena Ball
By Sally Rooney
ISBN: 9780571347292, Sept 2018, 288pages, $29.99aud, paperback
Sally Rooney’s Normal People is an unsettling read. The story is icily unromantic in its exploration of modern day love. There’s a myopic quality to Connell and Marianne’s relationship; one that their friends notice and sometimes resent, and one that both of them can neither resist nor accept. In many ways the story never seems to progress, even though it moves through time and space as the two young lovers from the same school in Sligo, Ireland – a fictionalised small town called Carricklea – grow up and end up going to Trinity College in Dublin. Both Connell and Marianne are smart, competitive and attractive, and both suffer the same debilitating anxiety, lack of a sense of self-worth, and fear, though their corresponding privilege reverses in ways that create fascinating parallels as they move between popularity and loneliness.
The feelings that these two characters have for one another is so obvious that it becomes dramatic irony to watch how the characters pivot around one another, coming together and struggling with other partners and their own emotional trauma as they try to find some kind of meaning in their lives and relationships both with and without one another. It would have been easy for Rooney to let the work slide into a comfortable romance story. Certainly the relationship between Connell and Marianne, which seems to hover in a space between friendship and love, is a constant. However, it’s clear that both have experienced trauma and are in need of more than a happy ending. The story is no so much about the love between them that never quite reaches fruition, but rather about the way in which the deep care that underlies the feelings these two characters have for one another becomes a mechanism for healing and a catalyst for change.
It does at times feel like the novel goes nowhere, though the oddly disjointed chapter headings begin in January 2011 and move through February 2015 so there is a very clear time shift, and of course the two young protagonists get older and a bit wiser too. The narrative remains in present tense, which adds an odd kind of suspense as the scenes unfold:
Outside he gets in the car and starts the engine. The radio comes on and he snaps it off with a flat hand. His breath isn’t right. After only one drink he feels out of ti, not alert enough, or too alert, twitchy. The car is too silent but he can’t stand the idea of the radio. His hands feel damp on the steering wheel. (250)
Throughout the book there are continual shifts in power dynamics, between Connell and Marianne, and between each of them and their respective partners. It’s never fully clear who is in control, and sometimes it seems like Connell and Marianne are in competition for who can be the least powerful. Between them, the shifts are continual and drive the narrative forward, creating a unique dialectic that also incorporates political engagement, even though the political remain subtle and outside the main narrative arc. The shifts are based on things like popularity, social ease, wealth, attractiveness, gender, mental and physical wellbeing, studiousness, family support networks and perhaps least clear and most shifting is sex and how it is used, abused, and shared. Marianne is clearly not the masochist she claims to be, though she repeatedly puts herself into situations where she is at risk.
…she’s conscious by now of being able to desire in some sense what she does not want. The quality of gratification is thin and hard, arriving too quicly and then leaving her sick and shivery. You’re worthless, Lukas likes to tell her. You’re nothing. And she feels like nothing, and absence to be forcibly filed in. It isn’t that she likes the feeling, but it relieves her somehow. (190)
The scenes are presented in such a matter-of-fact way that it’s almost easy to miss the overt misogyny that Marianne encounters in her own family, and in the men she finds herself drawn to, other than Connor, who seems to also be a victim of what he deems ‘normal’ behaviour for a male:
Things happened to him, like the crying fits, the panic attacks, but they seemed to descend on him from outside, rather than emanating from somewhere insie himself. Internally eh felt nothing. He was like a freezer item that had thawed too quickly on the outside and was melting everywhere, while the inside was still frozen solid. (214)
The Trinity college setting is richly portrayed, and Rooney is particularly gifted at dialogue which creates a snappy pace and helps bring in a cast of minor characters whose discomfort with the intimacy between Connell and Marianne becomes a further mirror into who these young people are. Though not difficult to read, Normal People casts a an incitful eye on the notion of normalcy and how it can undermine the most genuine of relationships. Despite its often bleak outlook, Normal People is a hopeful book, and though the trajectory of Connell and Marianne is often painful at times, intellect and emotion pulling in opposite direction, Normal People is a powerful read that not only provides insight into the young, modern mind, but also which provides a classic thematic in a modernistic, tight and compelling format.