Sally Rooney’s novel Normal People, longlisted for the Man Booker prize last year and shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction this year, is difficult to pin down, I think. The blurb suggests it’s ‘an exquisite love story’, about two people who can’t keep away from each other, but that seems quite reductive to me after finishing the book. (The blurb also says it ‘breathes fiction with new life’, which seems ungrammatical).
The central characters, Marianne and Connell, have a continuing relationship throughout the novel, though they are often reluctant to define it in anyway, including using the word ‘love’. The focus on these two, particularly Marianne, is so intense that they seem to be under a spotlight, while other characters – parents, partners and so on – fade into the background, flat, sometimes stereotyped and with only minor roles to play.
The story is set in Ireland in the 2010s, where Marianne and Connell are at school together. Marianne is an outsider, clever, wealthy, and with virtually no friends; Connell is also clever but popular with it, and much more concerned about what others think of him. He is also the son of Marianne’s mother’s cleaner. The two develop a secret relationship, which shifts and reshapes itself across the course of the novel, when they go to study in Dublin after leaving school. But the events of the novel aren’t really the point here, nor really is the relationship between the two. Instead it’s their characters, delicately built up with small brush strokes like an impressionist painting. Things are gradually revealed and explored, and I found myself coming to care about the complex and unhappy characters.
The title is echoed throughout the novel, as it becomes clear that neither Marianne nor Connell is ‘normal’, at least compared with those around them. They are both, in different ways, worried about appearing normal, though, about fitting in to their various social circles, and ask themselves and each other what ‘normal people’ would do. The novel asks the reader to question what is normal, then, and indeed if there is such a thing, particularly as the quest to appear normal is often so damaging to the characters in their various attempts to fit in with those around them, who inevitably aren’t worth the struggle entailed. (It reminded me of the line from Peter Shaffer’s Equus, that ‘The Normal is the good smile in a child’s eyes: – alright. It is also the dead stare in a million adults.’)
There is love, of a kind, but it’s not a love story. This is about two damaged, unhappy people who sometimes find comfort in each other. And sometimes they don’t. It’s not a shallow novel, though it’s an easy read, but one which asks whether we can ever really relate to other people, and whether any relationship can ultimately end our isolation, which is part of the human condition. This makes it pretty bleak, really: the miserable descriptions of parties and nights out with friends make you wonder what the characters really have to live for.
The stream of consciousness form means that the novel moves the reader rapidly through thought processes and conversations, shifting from topic to topic just as these things do, with no speech marks (which I find slightly affected, though this seems a growing trend in novels). It does mean, though, that significant details are casually slipped in and easily missed in a novel which, on the surface, doesn’t appear to ask much of the reader, and I frequently had to check what was narration, thought or dialogue due to the lack of speech marks. (As an aside, I wonder if this is fiction’s way of ‘not capitalising lines of poetry’ as an indication that it’s ‘modern’).
There are moments of interesting metafiction, too, as characters explore philosophical, literary or other strands of thought and find ways to integrate these ideas into their own lives and thought processes. Connell talks about an evening with a famous writer, where ‘literary people’ indulge themselves. He thinks, in an excoriating aside which surely is aimed at the reader:
It was culture as class performance, literature fetishised for its ability to take educated people in false emotional journeys, so that they might afterwards feel superior to the uneducated people whose emotional journeys they liked to read about. … all books were ultimately marketed as status symbols…
I enjoyed this book. It made me care, and think, but perhaps not quite enough. I finished it feeling as though I wanted more, somehow – more understanding, more depth, more sympathy between the characters, perhaps. I’ll be interested to see what Rooney writes next.