As high school concludes, Connell is faced with a forked path: follow his friends to Galway, the predictable route chosen by working-class boys in West Ireland, or pursue his adolescent tryst with Marianne to Dublin to study literature at Trinity College. When he’s reading Jane Austen at the latter, he worries that “It feels intellectually unserious to concern himself with fictional people marrying one another. But there it is: literature moves him. One of his professors calls it ‘the pleasure of being touched by great art’. In those words it almost sounds sexual.”
Irish writer Sally Rooney’s sophomore novel is about star-crossed lovers from different worlds who become trapped in one another’s orbits. Yet to classify Normal People as a romance, or even a novel of manners, is to betray its psychological perspicacity. Rooney probes the chance relationships that alter a life’s trajectory, where those who forge us can also threaten our obliteration. Taking possession of another’s heart commands a terrible power.
Adolescent hierarchies are flipped at university: the wry intelligence that made Marianne a pariah bestows social capital, while Connell’s easy charm is viewed as provincial. Freed from their cloistered hometown, class distinctions emerge in sharp relief: “They had never talked … about the fact that her mother paid his mother money to scrub their floors and hang their laundry, or about the fact that this money circulated indirectly to Connell, who spent it, as often as not, on Marianne.”
Wealth purchases an intellectual confidence that Connell will never possess, but Marianne’s birthright comes with wretched inheritances. The struggle for connection transcends gender and class, as do the myriad ways that humans can hurt one another. Pain and pleasure become dangerously confused, where cruelty is mistaken for depth of feeling or just deserts.
Rooney’s debut Conversations with Friends, about two young women performing themselves into being, online and in reality, brimmed with ideas, humour and ennui. Connell and Marianne also worry about what it means to be “good” or “normal”, but Rooney shows the real-world limits of self-creation. She excels not only at dialogue but in the silences between, showing our capacity for misinterpretation.
As in the great novels, Rooney’s painfully familiar characters are each unhappy in their own way. There it is: literature moves us. And yet, “Life offers up these moments of joy despite everything.” TM
Faber, 304pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 1, 2018 as "Sally Rooney, Normal People". Subscribe here.