The good: It’s intense and really gets under your skin.
The not-so-good: The intensity is set at a distance from the reader.
Why I chose it: Lots of #NormalPeopleLove across social media recently!
Publisher: Faber & Faber
Rating: 9 out of 10
Normal People has been getting a lot of good social media noise across many channels so I thought that I should take the opportunity to read it. While it wasn’t the panacea of modern writing that I’d hoped for, it’s an intense read that really gets under the reader’s skin. Sally Rooney has the ability to diffuse the story and her characters into the reader’s mind, where they will stubbornly stay even after the novel is finished. It’s a modern story with old worldly touches that is enchanting, despite the subject matter.
I was a bit surprised after reading Normal People that it had been longlisted for the Booker Prize – not because of the quality of the writing which is superb but because of the subject content. The characters begin as teenagers and move through their university years, drinking and having sex and being involved in some things that my mind had as not really Booker material. But I’m glad they those to recognise this work and if you’re the type to shun prize listed novels – don’t ignore this. There is so much mood and controlled angst in this new adult novel that it offers any reader a lot to ponder over.
The two main characters are Marianne and Connell. They are both in the same class at school but that’s where the similarity ends. Marianne is rich but shunned at school for being weird. Connell’s mum cleans for Marianne’s family but Connell is one of the most popular boys in town. One day Marianne and Connell get talking and that’s that. A relationship is begun that will follow them into their twenties and shape both their futures. At university, the tables are turned in Connell’s eyes. Marianne is super popular and he’s the odd one out, a poor country boy. Over the years, their relationship is tumultuous, ranging from romantic to friendship. Both try new relationships and new things, but they are always drawn back to each other. It’s an intense relationship but an equal one. Both characters lead each other to new ground, but never to the detriment of each other.
Marianne and Connell are like chalk and cheese. Marianne’s family hate her for reasons that are never explained (and which frustrated me at times. Marianne does not invite sympathy but it would have been useful to me as to why she is so stoic). Marianne is convinced she is damaged goods and takes a path that exploits herself as a bad person. The reader knows that she isn’t but I felt that a little more background could have helped me understand a bit more about her. Connell is very close to his mother, who had him as a teenager, and she is also his mentor in life. She offers him advice without overcrowding him but ultimately lets him make his own mistakes. Where Marianne is mysterious, Connell is straightforward which is possibly his downfall. At university, he initially expects others to be as clear cut (which they aren’t). This heightens Connell’s insecurities about his place in the world. The back and forth of their relationship is intense, with each rescuing the other at their time of need.
But it is Sally Rooney’s writing that really makes Normal People. In less talented hands, this book could be dismissed as another new adult romance. Rooney makes the emotions leap off the page, grabbing the reader and taking them into Connell and Marianne’s world, but refraining from sending them completely down the rabbit hole. This distance is necessary to keep the story on an even keel but sometimes I wanted to fall headfirst into it. It’s a great twist on the coming of age story and I look forward to Sally Rooney’s next novel.