I am so at home in Dublin, more than any other city, that I feel it has always been familiar to me. It took me years to see through its soft charm to its bitter prickly kernel - which I quite like too.

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Brilliant Youths

Joseph Leahy
There’s a trick common to certain skilled conversationalists in conspicuously well-read society. It starts with an injunction: you don’t ask whether your neighbour has read the author you’re referring to. Instead you proceed on the assumption that they have, or that they are at least familiar with “the work”. There’s a balance to be struck here though. It can, after all, be humiliating to invite a level of engagement your conversational partner can’t provide. The essence of the trick is to couch what you have to say in sufficient detail – with accessible points of reference and a carefully judged number of “of course”s included – to allow your interlocutor to nod along and respond fluently, even if they are, in fact, entirely ignorant of “the work”. When well-executed, conversation flows seamlessly, founded on an equality gracefully maintained by speaker and listener, the product of an unspoken but mutually-understood compact. In Conversations with Friends, Sally Rooney’s deft first novel, Frances, our narrator, reads listlessly in bed. “I lay on my side with A Critique of Postcolonial Reason propped half-open on the pillow beside me. Occasionally I lifted a finger to turn the page and allowed the heavy and confusing syntax to drift down through my eyes and into my brain like fluid. I’m bettering myself, I thought. I’m going to become so smart no one will understand me.” Acid humour aside, note what’s omitted: the author of this character-building reading material. A Critique of Postcolonial Reason is a major work by cultural theorist Gayatri Chakravoty Spivak; but of course you knew that already. What’s at play here is an ability to construct implicitly shared premises with the reader, one that marks Rooney out as a novelist of uncommon generosity. It goes some way to explaining her remarkable success to date, which hardly needs elaboration. High-profile admirers include Saoirse Ronan and Lorde (“Oh how fast the evening passes / Cleaning up the champagne glasses”, Lorde sings on “Sober II” (Melodrama), a refrain that gestures at preoccupations common to both artists: the fascination of wealth, its twin ennui, an ambiguous sense of gendered domesticity …). This year will see Lenny Abrahamson’s BBC adaptation of Normal People, which will doubtless push Rooney’s work even further into the popular imagination and offers an apt moment for further reflection on these books and their accompanying sensation. It’s perhaps unsurprising that Rooney’s writing would appeal to intellectually engaged celebrities of the same…

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