Some novels are brilliant not because they show us something new, but because they shed a new light on something we think we know everything about. Sometimes we want to dive into different worlds and distant places, and sometimes we just want to read what we already know. This is what reading ‘Normal People’, Sally Rooney’s latest novel, feels like. It is a book filled with conventional experiences. Being kissed by your crush for the first time; causing your mother to be upset with you; regretting lost contact with old friends. In short, things we all care about.
The rural west of Ireland in January 2011: it is the last year of school. Connell and Marianne, the two best students of their year, don’t talk much, not at all really, until one day when Connell picks up his mum from Marianne’s house, where she works as a cleaner three times a week. They awkwardly talk about school and books until Marianne tells Connell that she likes him. Weeks later they kiss for the first time. A complicated relationship unfolds, first in their hometown, and then as they both go to Trinity College and enter their adult lives…
‘Normal People’ does not require much time to build a strong relationship between the protagonists. Rooney establishes almost straight-away that these two love each other. That does not mean that this book has no romance, thrill, or conflict. It also does not mean the protagonists know what is so obvious for the reader, as much as for anyone who has seen people gravitate towards each other in real life. At several stages they struggle to understand what they want from another, and from themselves, anxious about not being enough or that the time has passed for this.
Despite years of various crises and alienations, an almost palpable intensity between them always remains, a sense that everything can be said at any moment. It is a great pleasure to read these two people continually putting themselves into the uncertainty. Both immensely struggle with this. Marianne, prone to depression and insecurity, fears she is inherently unlovable. Connell, introverted and unsociable, feels like he does not understand those around him. With Rooney manages to show universal insecurities; that false feeling of knowing oneself perfectly well, whilst anyone else seems to be a complete enigma.
Indeed, Rooney has replaced her debut novel’s political innuendo with the pressures created through social conformity and the secret world of intimate conversation. Marianne and Connell should be confident, outgoing, and happy. They should want what everyone wants and like what everyone enjoys. The conflict between individual desire and conventional pressures is often expressed in refreshingly candid prose. In one of many telling thoughts, Connell wants to know how other people conduct their private lives, so that he can copy from example. He only knows what people want, but not how they get it. Rooney, despite focussing on two highly intelligent people at an elite university, identifies individual experiences common for many people.
In a way that makes ‘Normal People’ almost apolitical, somewhat surprising considering that Rooney’s debut novel ‘Conversations with Friends’ discussed the social permissibility of non-conventional relationships at great length. ‘Normal People’ is more about becoming an adult in the 2010s than about the particular place the novel is set in. In fact, Ireland as such is not relevant for this story. It may have been set in England or Scotland, too.
Stylistically, this book is even more minimalistic than its predecessor, featuring even fewer characters. Focussing exclusively on Marianne and Connell by showing their individual experiences in different chapters, the story’s dynamic central relationship is always the main focus. Chapters are set weeks or even months apart from each other, contextualising the story.
All of this makes reading this book not easy. It is haunting in its honesty and brutal in its consequences. But in this lies great promise; the belief that change towards the better is always possible through hard work, and that trust in people can be rewarded. Its reflections on growing up, romance, and university life will resonate. Marianne and Connell, awkwardly gravitating between romance and friendship for years, are almost too relatable; they are normal people. What could we want more from a novel?