Saturday 15 September 2018


Normal People by Sally Rooney    {Reviewed by STELLA}
Connell and Marianne go to school together in Carricklea. Connell’s mother Lorraine cleans house for Marianne’s family. Connell and Marianne affect stranger-hood and spend their school hours ignoring each other while after hours they explore each other’s minds and bodies. While Connell, accepted and seemingly aligned with a ‘group’ at school, navigates his final year, Marianne, ‘weird’ and isolated, continues on her trajectory of bullied-yet-disengaged. Both, despite outward appearances, are dealing with feelings of otherness, and in each other they find a connection that will take them both to Trinity College in Dublin and a heady on-again/off-again relationship - one which neither will quite articulate as a relationship despite the obvious depth of their feelings and understanding of each other. Alongside their regard for each other lie more sinister and manipulative practices: some purposeful, others accidental - often a product of circumstances (class and social difference, family dynamics) outside their control and affected by the actions of others. While denying their feelings to each other they will talk past each other, suffer misunderstandings and hurts that could be avoided, yet they are all too real - ‘normal’. Marianne, a victim of an unloving family, thinks that no one will truly love her and heads towards several disastrous sexual relationships with men who take advantage of this vulnerability. Connell, once at university, feels at sea - no longer part of the familial clan - and finds himself on the outside looking in, now tagging along beside Marianne who, due to her social status, is easily part of the group. Confused by Marianne and the new world he finds himself in, Connell becomes increasingly isolated, despite a steady relationship with a medical student which ends with a sigh rather than any startling rupture. His ongoing communication, sometimes through emails when they are living in different countries, with Marianne remains the centre of his emotional life. Sally Rooney’s second novel Normal People is a well-observed and honest account of a young love, of what it means to try to explore the idea of love and to connect with another being. It’s pithy, sad and beautiful in equal measure. Can one truly be loved and, if so, does this come with the price of submission? Can you really know another person or are we only projections of what we want others to see? As Connell and Marianne navigate this perilous path, we cheer them on and at the same time wish them a freedom from the damning aspects of romantic entanglements. This novel reminded me in part of One Day by David Nicholls, which sets two unsuitable people on a course of love that will never work, but Normal People has a far more cynical (and never nostalgic) view of relationships, and one that is ultimately deeply hopeful championing the power of the individual to change another’s life for the better in surprising and rewarding ways. It's a remarkable depiction of a young man at sea emotionally and of a young woman dealing with victimhood. It's also cleverly arranged over four years, with each chapter being a fundamental moment in either Connell's or Marianne's lives: the first chapter (January 2011) is followed by Chapter 2: Three Weeks Later (February 2011) and so on until the final chapter, Seven Months Later (September 2015). Sometimes it's months, at other times weeks, once five minutes, between defining moments. This structure adds to the intensity of the relationship as it plays out, moving between hometown, Europe and university. Long-listed for the Man Booker, Rooney is an author to watch.  

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