Con­ver­sa­tions set to be the talk of the town;

Sen­sual writ­ing and sear­ing in­sights on af­fairs and re­la­tion­ships from a tal­ented new Ir­ish voice

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - ARTS & BOOKS - Sarah Gil­martin

New Fic­tion Con­ver­sa­tions with Friends By Sally Rooney Faber, ¤14.99

As Anne En­right wrote in her 2011 novel The Forgotten Waltz, be­ing the “Not Wife” is a del­i­cate busi­ness. It’s a l es­son t hat 21- year- old Frances, the nar­ra­tor of Con­ver­sa­tions with Friends, learns over the course of a list­less col­lege sum­mer where she be­gins an af­fair with a mar­ried man.

A crack­ing early scene sees Frances and her best friend Bobbi in­vited to the south­side Dublin home of jour­nal­ist Melissa, whose in­ter­est in the pair is sparked af­ter pro­fil­ing their spo­ken word dou­ble act. While Bobbi favours Melissa, Frances is at­tracted to her ac­tor hus­band, Nick. The bat­tle lines are drawn from the be­gin­ning.

To Bobbi, Melissa is vi­brant and beau­ti­ful. To Frances, she’s a phony: “She made us all laugh a lot, but in the same way you might make some­one eat some­thing when they don’t want to fully eat it.” Frances’s acu­ity and ob­ses­sive need for au­then­tic­ity re­calls lit­er­a­ture’s most fa­mous phony de­crier, Holden Caulfield. Sally Rooney’s nar­ra­tor has some years on Salinger’s, how­ever, and her in­sights come from a more de­tached voice.

The emo­tional in­tel­li­gence and pre­ci­sion of Con­ver­sa­tions with Friends de­liv­ers a dy­namic de­but novel about the messy, over­lap­ping re­la­tion­ships be­tween four cap­ti­vat­ing char­ac­ters.

Frances and Bobbi are not only friends but for­mer lovers, a re­la­tion­ship that Frances de­picts with great depth of feel­ing and ad­mi­ra­tion: “On­stage she was the su­pe­rior per­former and I of­ten glanced at her anx­iously to re­mind my­self what to do.” Al­though they’ve split up, the pair re­main in­sep­a­ra­ble – un­til Frances’s af­fair with Nick drives a wedge be­tween them.

In­sid­i­ous­ness of af­fairs

The i nsid­i­ous­ness of af­fairs comes through in the dis­in­te­gra­tion of their once for­mi­da­ble friend­ship. Bobbi’s “ten­dency to get in­side things and break them open” builds over the course of the sum­mer, cul­mi­nat­ing in a tense hol­i­day in Provence where the af­fair is a barely kept se­cret in a house of guests who seem de­ter­mined to ig­nore it.

The Amer­i­can au­thor Molly McCloskey’s lat­est novel, When Light Is Like Wa­ter, pub­lished last month, charts sim­i­lar ter­rain but from the per­spec­tive of an older woman look­ing back on an af­fair that ended her mar­riage. Both McCloskey and Rooney bring their re­spec­tive af­fairs to life with sen­sual writ­ing that seeks to high­light the com­plex­ity of de­sire. For Frances, it’s like “a key turn­ing hard in­side my body, turn­ing so force­fully that I could do noth­ing to stop it”.

En­right’s The Forgotten Waltz comes to mind the­mat­i­cally, and in the sharp, wry voice of its fe­male nar­ra­tor. There are sim­i­lar­i­ties, as well, even in name, be­tween Frances and Sara Baume’s pro­tag­o­nist Frankie in her re­cent novel A Line Made by Walk­ing. Both are highly in­tel­li­gent young women who step back from the world to ob­serve its strange­ness. They are modern-day seers, at once harsh and funny.

Frances is bru­tal in her crit­i­cisms, with Rooney cap­tur­ing the pitch- per­fect tone of a cer­tain type of col­lege stu­dent whose self- right­eous­ness is un­der­cut with self-loathing. Frances calls the adult char­ac­ters out on their as­sump­tions and blase com­ments. She dis­sects their use of lan­guage, such as Melissa’s as­ser­tion that time is “so funny”. She no­tices the “ten­dency of peo­ple to em­pha­sise the qual­i­fi­ca­tions of refugees”.

She is equally forth­right on the af­fair it­self: “Dur­ing these dis­cus­sions, Nick laughed at all my jokes. I told him I was eas­ily se­duced by peo­ple who laughed at my jokes and he said he was eas­ily se­duced by peo­ple who were smarter than he was.” As their re­la­tion­ship starts to break down, Frances knows she’s go­ing to tell him “the most des­per­ate thing I could pos­si­bly tell him, as if even in the depths of my in­dig­nity I craved some­thing worse”.

Com­mu­ni­ca­tion, or lack thereof, is a ma­jor theme. Frances gets on well with her mother back home in the west of Ire­land, but her re­la­tion­ship with her al­co­holic fa- ther has been fraught since child­hood. Away at col­lege in Dublin, she flits be­tween hu­mour­ing and ig­nor­ing him, un­til that op­tion is taken from her.

The means through which Frances and Nick com­mu­ni­cate is an­a­lysed through­out the book. Much of their cor­re­spon­dence is through email and in­stant mes­sen­ger: “Our re­la­tion­ship was like a Word doc­u­ment that we were writ­ing and edit­ing to­gether, or a long pri­vate joke which no­body else could un­der­stand.”

Fallen woman

When the af­fair sours, Frances must deal with the con­se­quences alone; the penance of the fallen woman. Af­ter an ag­o­nis­ing meet­ing with Nick and Melissa at a book launch, Frances is un­able to share her in­ner tur­moil with Bobbi: “Up­stairs, we got our coats and then walked home to­gether talk­ing about col­lege, about Melissa’s new book, about things that didn’t re­ally con­cern us.”

The ul­tra-cool repar­tee be­tween Frances and Nick may grate with some read­ers, and Rooney does her ut­most at times to cast her nar­ra­tor in an elit­ist, un­sym­pa­thetic light: “My ego had al­ways been an is­sue. I knew that in­tel­lec­tual at­tain­ment was morally neu­tral at best, but when bad things hap­pened to me I made my­self feel bet­ter by think­ing about how smart I was.”

This is fear­less writ­ing that seeks to get at the truth of an af­fair and a sin­gu­lar young woman who de­cides, with very lit­tle soul-search­ing, to en­ter into one. The pain this causes is con­trasted with the high points, and Rooney is ex­cel­lent on sex: “Af­ter a while it felt so good that I couldn’t see clearly any more, and I wasn’t sure if I could pro­nounce whole sen­tences.”

Later on, the phys­i­cal thrills no longer suf­fice: “I ran my fin­ger along his col­lar­bone and said: I can’t re­mem­ber if I thought about this at the be­gin­ning. How it was doomed to end un­hap­pily.”

From the west of Ire­land, Rooney has a mas­ter’s in cre­ative writ­ing from Trin­ity. At just 26, her work has ap­peared in Granta, The White Review, The Dublin Review, The Sting­ing Fly, Kevin Barry’s Stone­cut­ter and the Win­ter Pa­pers an­thol­ogy.

The “con­ver­sa­tion” of the ti­tle re­curs fre­quently through­out her ac­com­plished de­but. From the break­down in com­mu­ni­ca­tion be­tween Bobbi and Frances, to Nick’s role as lis­tener, to the fact that dur­ing the af­fair their eyes “seemed to be hav­ing a con­ver­sa­tion of their own”, the dis­par­ity be­tween what peo­ple feel and how they ex­press it is ex­pertly mined by Rooney.

With­out a doubt, Con­ver­sa­tions with Friends will be a ma­jor talk­ing point this sum­mer.

Sally Rooney: cap­tures the pitch-per­fect tone of a cer­tain type of stu­dent. PHO­TO­GRAPH: NICK BRAD­SHAW

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Ireland

© PressReader. All rights reserved.