Normal People by Sally Rooney
Normal People, the second novel of the young Irish writer Sally Rooney, was a definite success and received the love of critics. Today it is difficult for readers to open the book without high expectations. The millennial author uses direct and effortless language to broach complicated topics about society and human nature: this is a novel about self-exploration, love, sexuality and how the romantic relationships of millennials adapt to class, social and gender inequality.
The love of the protagonists, Marianne and Connell, germinates in a high school, and it is constantly undergoing painful transformations against the backdrop of balls, exams, university semesters and summer vacations. Rooney masterfully portrays fragile feelings, intimacy, and the youthful excitement of first love, which contrasts starkly with a world where inequality still reigns: Marianne is from an upper-class family, which lives in a big mansion where Connell’s mother works as a cleaner. As we already know from Jane Austen, class can be a significant, but nevertheless surmountable obstacle to romantic relationships.
The narrative is tense and sensual, but some characters appear clichéd: Marianne is a sophisticated, closed-off and lonely schoolgirl who reads Proust during school breaks at the cafeteria, while Connell is a handsome, popular yet insecure top soccer player. They are surrounded by many more stereotypical schoolchildren and students, diffuse shadows in the background of the two main protagonists of the novel. The figures of the villains are also vague, and for the most part only serve as momentum for the endless pendulum of Marianne and Connell’s relationship with each other and with themselves. And here a flaw of this undoubtedly powerful novel creeps up on us: because many characters may seem clichéd or simply blurred, Rooney risks depriving her reader of developing the empathy so necessary for enjoying the plot twists.
There are no quotation marks in Normal People and this seems to call into question the importance of spoken words: the protagonists of the novel are not ready to openly discuss their feelings. This aching understatement echoes the unnoticed love in Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, a reminder of the importance of speaking out loud about such matters.
The presentation of the story always remains extremely frank, like life itself, and even its end looks like a new beginning. Through the portrayal of love which was never destined to take spoken form, Rooney opens the door to a microcosm of the millennial universe, where young people constantly confront not only the injustices of the world, but also their inner selves.
Photo: Jonny I Davies
Normal People is published by Faber & Faber at the hardback price of £14.99. For further information visit the publisher’s website here.