Ernest Hemmingway threw some shade at William Faulkner once.
“Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words?”
Sally Rooney, a Hemmingway in a field full of Faulkners, writes with simplicity and beauty. Although Normal People is sparse and unpretentious, it manages the much more impressive feat of evoking some serious emotion.
The novel centres around two young people: Connell and Marianne. It is set in Ireland and follows the pair from high school until finishing university in Dublin. In a style reminiscent of David Nicholls’ One Day, we are drip-fed snippets of action which take place months apart. The plot of Rooney’s ‘will they, won’t they’ novel is as old as time. Two people in love. Both have their fatal flaws. Life gets in the way. Despite the formulaic plot, this tussle keeps us gripped until the very end.
Normal People achieves this as it renders its reader so deeply invested in these two characters. Both lovable and frustrating in equal measure, Rooney’s clever storytelling ensures that the only thing the readers and characters are sure about is their love for each other. The novel leaves us rooting for them to make this infuriating, inconvenient love work.
The narrative switches throughout, from Connell to Marianne, exploring their viewpoints and assessing the same situations through opposing lenses. Throughout the course of the novel, their relationship is a bumpy road of separations and reconciliations. We, the reader, see both the deep understanding and intimacy that brings them together along with the confusions and miscommunications that tear them apart. The themes of human connection and communication are deeply explored, here, leading us to question just how well we can ever truly know those closest to us. Though we may love them, their minds and motivations are a mystery to us.
During the novel we are immersed in the characters’ views and feelings with Rooney’s sparse and fast paced stream of consciousness narrative echoing daily human thoughts. She explores the idea that our thinking is solely ours and that there is a certain beauty in the honesty of thought. Our actions, on the other hand, can be totally at odds with them.
Marianne and Connell are also shown to be totally different to each other but both are messy, tragic and oh so relatable. Marianne, for starters, is a social outcast at school. Then, her aloof and emotionally stunted ways pass as cool during her university years and she manages to climb the social hierarchy. Marianne is pretty oblivious to the ins and outs of social convention, though and is often portrayed as a passive empty vessel. Her non-existent self-worth manifests in increasingly dark ways as the narrative progresses. Her love for Connell is ever apparent, though, and simply being with him brings her the safety she longs for, even if she never fully allows herself to trust him.
Her co-star is Connell. Full of teenage angst and self-consciousness, he takes himself a little too seriously. He adores and is fearful of Marianne, and his love for her, in equal measure. Though he is popular at school, he finds the move to university challenging and struggles to find happiness there. He is embarrassed by his working-class background and finds Marianne’s blasé attitude to money frustrating. Moments between Connell and his mum (whom he refers to as ‘Lorraine’) offer up some of the heartfelt warmth and light-humour that the reader is so desperately craving. She acts as his moral compass throughout the novel and the ease and simplicity of this love counterbalances the complexities of Connell and Marianne’s.
Aside from dealing with the presence of love, be it simple of complex, the novel also deals with the total absence of love in the form of Marianne’s family life. Affluent yet abusive, they have worn her down to become a joyless and listless young woman. Her character is therefore shown to view herself as unworthy of love and unable to accept Connell’s for the most part, instead entering into abusive and unhealthy relationships. Rooney tackles some sensitive and tricky themes, here but shows empathy and understanding for the character of Marianne. There is a sad irony in the fact that Marianne is more defensive with Connell in many ways, that with those people who actually wish to hurt her who are littered throughout the book. This leaves the reader to ponder the damage that a loveless, broken home can inflict upon a person.
In summary, Rooney’s novel has that rare ability to be heart-warming and heart-breaking all in one. A quick, easy read (at least in the practical sense), this book will have you gripped for a week and will stay with you for a long time.