Hype machine turned up to 11 for Ireland’s new rising star
Sally Rooney has been heaped with praise after being Man Booker prize-longlisted for her latest novel which — though imperfect — showcases her ability to zero-in on the delicate behaviours of the heart, says HILARY A WHITE
Penguin, hardback, 272 pages, €16.99
The short bio provided by her publishers has one point that it wishes to get across before telling you anything else about author Sally Rooney — that she was born in 1991. It quickly follows this up by reminding us that she was the youngest ever winner of the Sunday Times PFD Young Writer of the Year Award.
When Rooney appeared on the scene last year with Conversations With Friends, there was a similar narrative swirling around the Castlebar writer whose debut was said to be at the centre of a seven-way publishing bidding war. A precocious talent had arrived, a white-hot hope who surprised possibly even herself when Conversations With Friends — a fine jumping off point but never destined to be her masterwork — began an unstoppable march that saw it packed into countless holiday suitcases and snag celebrity fans such as Zadie Smith and Sarah Jessica Parker.
All before Rooney had turned 27, the age she is now as her follow-up arrives not only to widespread interest, but also even greater lashings of hype no thanks to that recent Man Booker longlisting. Normal People, like its predecessor, will be one of those titles that will be a talking point this year, and we’d better get used to it. Lenny Abrahamson is to direct an adaptation by Rooney of it for the BBC.
We’re in familiar territory — Trinity (the author’s alma mater), the confusion and pain of young love, lots of urbane discussions about the trivial, the social and the hotly political. Her two new protagonists have their feet in two worlds, each offering sustenance for feelings of anguish and disquiet.
There is the hometown in Connacht, a cosy community where staying below the radar can be difficult. Marianne is the girl from the big house, her family’s wealth adding to her sense of never quite fitting in. She feels she is unlike the other classmates at school, most of whom indeed share this suspicion.
Connell, meanwhile, is the shy local lad whose mother is a housemaid at Marianne’s family home. For this reason, he becomes the only peer she really has any significant contact with, and with the pair’s hormones throbbing away inside, an attraction forms and bedrooms beckon.
Neither has a current father figure in their life and both are intelligent, bookish and academically endowed. After fumbling first steps into a relationship are thwarted by smalltown vanity, the pair happen upon one another up in Dublin after each is awarded a scholarship to study at Trinity.
This is the second world that these two carry their star-crossed duet into, and the setting, like Conversations With Friends, brings with it all manner of themes related to class, the obsession with popularity, swirling hedonism and right-on, po-faced invective on a broad array of matters (everything from the Israel-Palestine conflict to, interestingly, the publishing industry). Connell and Marianne see other people but never quite settle in these relationships, always relapsing back into each other’s arms and remaining somewhat emotionally dependent on one another. They grow, their skins thicken and then crack, and baggage from early years — conjured by their own hand or inflicted upon them — that was never dealt with comes back to deal with them.
Normal People’s millennial character study is never anything less than surgically sharp as it analyses every utterance and thought and reaction between Marianne and Connell and those that come and go in their lives. This ability to zero-in on the delicate behaviours of the heart are the main reason that Rooney has become one of the more talked about writing exports of this country. Those that love her for this quality will hold Normal People to their heart because it is even more precision-focused than her first novel.
While the tight, exacting nature of this microscope is indeed highly acute and mostly illuminating, at times it can feel claustrophobic. The tone with which our narrator pieces apart these mundanely complicated young lovers can come across both matterof-fact and rather joyless. Of course, no heart breaks more wholly than a young and untested one, and there are indeed issues of abuse and depression that are folded into the fray, but the protracted bouts of stern naval-gazing become cloying after a while.
Occasionally, respite is provided. Whenever she appears, Connell’s mother Lorraine is a breath of fresh air amid the angst of the youngsters, a warm and wise voice drawn with quietly noble colour by Rooney. Marianne’s brutish brother Alan and near absent mother are eerily off-frame for the most part.
These are solid and tangible counterweights to the will-they-won’t-they of the central co-stars that plays out over the years.
When the narrator deflects their own gaze for a moment from Marianne and Connell and looks at the world, it can be strikingly beautiful. Rooney’s sunlight “crunches all the colours up and makes them sting”. Elsewhere, the sky is “a thrilling chlorine blue, stretched taut and featureless like silk” and “trees wave silvery individual leaves in silence”. They are nuggets of ambient description that give space to breathe from the weight of Marianne and Connell’s dysfunctional waltz. While we’re not expecting Reservoir 13 levels of painterliness, they did make me wonder how Normal People might have benefitted from a bit more air through it.
Rooney is hugely talented. Her ear for an inner voice and the way that she unparcels complicated human inclinations and emotional conceits is unquestionably deft. She is an important voice for her generation’s redefining of attitudes towards traditional gender roles, while her work to champion emerging writing talent as editor of The Stinging Fly also deserves kudos, especially when her early successes probably put her in a position to go fulltime at the typewriter.
And yes, there can be no doubt that her legions of fans will adore Normal People. But there are those who remain undecided. For them, a gut feeling persists that Rooney’s best work remains ahead of her. The good news is that time is on her side.
Rooney is an important voice for her generation’s redefining of attitudes towards traditional gender roles
Here’s looking at you, kids: Sally Rooney’s millennial character study in ‘Normal People’ is never anything less than surgically sharp
FICTION Normal People Sally Rooney