Love in a cyn­i­cal age

Julie My­er­son is amazed by a novel that sub­tly re­veals the com­plex­i­ties of a re­la­tion­ship

The Guardian Weekly - - Books - Sally Rooney (pic­tured) writes with deep and sat­is­fy­ing in­tel­li­gence Patrick Bol­ger

Nor­mal Peo­ple by Sally Rooney 266pp

Sally Rooney’s as­tound­ingly ac­com­plished de­but, Con­ver­sa­tions with Friends, was uni­ver­sally and de­servedly ac­claimed. It’s rare that a novel elic­its such un­mit­i­gated awe from just about ev­ery­one you know, whether male, fe­male, mil­len­nial or mid­dle aged, my fam­ily in­cluded. It was hard to be­lieve that the au­thor was still in her 20s and even harder to imag­ine that she could ever write any­thing bet­ter. But she has. In fact, in al­most ev­ery way, this new novel leaves that first book in the shade.

At first sight, the ter­ri­tory isn’t all that dif­fer­ent. A twist­ing tale of on-off-on lovers, told over sev­eral years in a series of halt­ingly ten­der, end­lessly mis­fir­ing con­ver­sa­tions and even more ten­derly mis­fir­ing sex­ual en­coun­ters. But where Rooney’s first novel was tight, slen­der, cool and (ad­mirably) re­strained, this one’s a lot more gen­er­ous, ex­pan­sive and ex­plicit, as well as, ac­tu­ally, more con­trolled. It’s also unashamedly ro­man­tic, but in the most rap­tur­ously con­tem­po­rary sense.

Mar­i­anne and Con­nell – clever, sen­si­tive, awk­ward teenagers – go to the same school in Sligo, but Mar­i­anne lives in the “white man­sion with a drive­way”, where Con­nell’s mother works as a cleaner. Reg­u­larly thrown into each other’s com­pany when Con­nell comes to pick his mother up, the two con­stantly wres­tle with their feel­ings. Con­nell doesn’t think Mar­i­anne likes him much, but he’s keenly aware of the sense of “to­tal pri­vacy” be­tween them, and the fact that when (of­ten) they slide into em­bar­rassed laugh­ter “they couldn’t look at each other ... they had to look into cor­ners of the room, or at their feet”. It’s a sur­prise to them both (though not re­ally to us) when they be­gin a hes­i­tant, clan­des­tine re­la­tion­ship. The lat­ter be­cause Mar­i­anne is con­sid­ered at school to be a mis­fit, equally feared and mocked by the cru­eller mem­bers of their friend­ship group. But far from be­ing indig­nant that Con­nell won’t own up to their li­ai­son, our hero­ine – for rea­sons that will dawn slowly and chill­ingly as the novel un­folds – seems to ac­cept it as her lot.

When both get places at Trin­ity Col­lege Dublin, it’s the start of a pro­tracted will-they-won’t-they? love af­fair, with the two re­lent­lessly, of­ten wretch­edly, ric­o­chet­ing be­tween sex­ual in­volve­ment, furious dump­ing and a touch­ingly easy friend­ship. You read on, with your breath held and only one blaz­ing ques­tion in mind. How long is it go­ing to take this pair of star-crossed lovers to find out what the rest of us have un­der­stood from page one: that they be­long to­gether?

It’s rare that I feel as daunted by the sub­tlety and com­plex­ity of a novel’s tra­jec­tory as by its nearper­fect nar­ra­tive ex­e­cu­tion, but in this case I doubt I’ll be alone.

Struc­turally, it’s uniquely clever, pur­port­ing to be straight­for­ward – even down­right lin­ear – with chap­ters headed “One Month Later” or even, in one case, “Five Min­utes Later”, while ac­tu­ally slyly and con­stantly loop­ing back on it­self, re­vis­it­ing past mo­ments and con­ver­sa­tions and events in a way that not only il­lu­mi­nates the present, but also cre­ates a de­lec­ta­ble, mount­ing sus­pense. A sim­ple enough trick, per­haps – not showy, not post­mod­ern, not meta – but it feels like noth­ing you have come across be­fore.

And then there’s the di­a­logue. Ex­actly as in her first novel, Rooney’s ear for the self-de­lud­ing fum­blings of mil­len­nial di­a­logue, her wack­ily can­did one-lin­ers, her abil­ity to mine both the com­edy and the tragedy from any sim­ple hu­man in­ter­ac­tion, are at once daz­zlingly con­tem­po­rary and en­joy­ably time­less. More than once, struck by her ca­pac­ity for cre­at­ing sparky, semi-erotic, ver­bal ten­sion from mere dis­cus­sion be­tween a man and a wo­man, I was re­minded of Jane Austen – think Pride and Prej­u­dice with hang­overs and fi­nals thrown in.

But what’s most ex­tra­or­di­nary and mov­ing about this novel is the por­trait of mod­ern male psy­che at its heart. Rooney’s Mar­i­anne is a beau­ti­fully re­alised – and beau­ti­ful – hero­ine, ab­so­lutely and de­fi­antly able to be her­self, ris­ing al­ways above the queasy mire of her back­ground (her wealth and priv­i­lege are unset­tlingly tinged with phys­i­cal and emo­tional abuse), in a way that con­stantly un­nerves those around her, not least Con­nell.

But it’s Con­nell who is the stun­ning cre­ation, achingly con­vinc­ing in his male­ness and his strug­gle to un­der­stand, and find an out­let for, his feel­ings. In­tel­li­gent, vul­ner­a­ble and hope­lessly in­co­her­ent, he is, in many ways, as fa­tally con­strained by his own gen­der as Mar­i­anne seems, to some ex­tent any­way, to be freed by hers.

Con­nell loves Mar­i­anne but does not know how to be with her, can’t own up to his emo­tions, can’t give her what she needs – but nei­ther can he ex­ist with­out her. Safely en­sconced with a new, dull girl­friend who makes him feel more un­com­pli­cat­edly happy (or so he tells him­self), he sends ever more lengthy emails to Mar­i­anne. On one pun­gently ob­served oc­ca­sion, he dreams up a good phrase and gets ready to write to her “only to remember that he can’t email her when she’s down­stairs”.

This is a beau­ti­ful novel with a deep and sat­is­fy­ing in­tel­li­gence at its heart. It’s emo­tion­ally and sex­u­ally ad­mirably frank (Mar­i­anne’s masochis­tic streak takes her down some dark paths), but also kind and wise, witty and warm. In the end, a lit­tle like Rooney’s first book, it’s a sym­pa­thetic yet pithy ex­am­i­na­tion of the myr­iad ways in which men and women try – and all too of­ten fail – to un­der­stand each other.

But what lifts it be­yond Con­ver­sa­tions is that there’s so much hope here. Mar­i­anne has “never be­lieved her­self fit to be loved by any per­son” but Con­nell has set her free from that place and, what­ever hap­pens next, it’s clear that this ef­fect will be long-last­ing. In fact, per­haps the ques­tion of whether these two will end up to­gether isn’t even the real ques­tion. Love changes us, but it also frees us and, as Rooney as­serts here so very tri­umphantly, no one can take that away.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.