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

Irish Independent - Weekend Review - - BOOKS -

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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

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