Normal People, by Sally Rooney, Faber and Faber, 266 pp, £13.99, ISBN: 978-0571347292
In a recent interview Sally Rooney reveals: “There is a part of me that will never be happy knowing that I am just writing entertainment, making decorative aesthetic objects at a time of historical crisis. But I am not good at anything else. This is the one thing that I am good at.” Rooney has experienced a meteoric rise since winning the 2017 Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award, and her novels have received major critical acclaim. In 2018, Conversations with Friends was shortlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize and the Folio Prize, and Normal People won Novel of the Year at the An Post Irish Book Awards and was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. However, Rooney is more interested in making a different kind of impact. She questions whether “literature has any politically redemptive power at all”, remarking that this concept “just seems increasingly naive” – a sentiment echoed by her protagonist Connell in Normal People.
Despite Rooney’s uncertainty, her second novel proves that she is in fact very good at writing about a time of historical crisis – an aesthetic act which is also a political act. She acknowledges the much commented upon parallels between Normal People and her debut, Conversations with Friends (2017), noting that they are tales of love and friendship between “people of the same age, in the same city, in the same college, looking at the same issues at pretty much exactly the same moment in history”. Nevertheless, this specific moment of post-crash Ireland provides a complex, deeply textured society in which to set her fiction. Rooney studied English literature as an undergraduate at Trinity College Dublin, where she won a lucrative scholarship that gave her the space to write. She began a Masters in politics and public policy, which she later abandoned in favour of a degree in American literature. Accordingly, her writing explores the politics of everyday lives, and how they are imbricated within systems of power.
Rooney does not give an exact date for the setting of Conversations with Friends, which depicts the complicated relationships between two couples during a compressed six-month period sometime after the fall of the Celtic Tiger. Her follow-up, Normal People, covers a wider time frame of four years, from 2011 to 2015, the year the Republic of Ireland’s finance minister declared “the end of austerity”. The novel charts the evolution of an on-off relationship between two young people, Marianne Sheridan and Connell Waldron, who come of age during Ireland’s austerity years. The chapter titles designate occurrences in the characters’ subjective timelines – “Three Months Later”, “Five Minutes Later” – while also placing the action within an actual historical timeline that provides the month and year. This structure indicates the ways in which particular historical moments shape not only the narrative, but also the interactions between characters. For Rooney refracts the contemporary political scene through events in Marianne and Connell’s lives in order to comment upon how social relations are constructed within a historical nexus.
The narrative locus of Normal People, as in Conversations with Friends, is the rarefied world of Trinity College Dublin, which throws class relations into stark relief. However, the geopolitical scope of both books includes the west of Ireland, and Rooney sets the modern Irish state within a global political context. Normal People references Ireland’s austerity protests alongside the global financial collapse, investment bank bailouts, the eurozone crisis and international military conflicts. Moreover, the psychological landscape of Rooney’s second novel is broader than its predecessor. Whereas Conversations with Friends is told entirely from the narrator, Frances’s, first-person perspective, Normal People utilises a third-person point of view to demonstrate the shifting and often divergent outlooks of Marianne and Connell, “two people who, over the course of several years, apparently could not leave one another alone”.
The fraught dynamics of their relationship are shaped by social stratification, which is evident not only when they attend college in metropolitan Dublin, but also when they meet as high school students in their small home town of Carricklea, Co Sligo. Rooney writes: “In school he and Marianne affect not to know each other. People know that Marianne lives in the white mansion with the driveway and that Connell’s mother is a cleaner, but no one knows of the special relationship between these facts.” Connell is from a working class background and his mother, Lorraine, cleans the Sheridan family mansion for a pittance. Marianne reflects:
She’s from a good family and Connell is from a bad one, that much she does know. The Waldrons are notorious in Carricklea … Lorraine got pregnant at seventeen and left school to have the baby. Nonetheless Connell is considered quite a catch these days. He’s studious, he plays centre forward in football, he’s good-looking, he doesn’t get into fights. Everybody likes him. He’s quiet. Even Marianne’s mother will say approvingly: That boy is nothing like a Waldron. Marianne’s mother is a solicitor. Her father was a solicitor too.
When Connell comes to pick up his mother from work, he and Marianne start talking in the privacy of her kitchen. The intellectual spark of their conversations gives way to a powerful attraction, and they begin an intense romantic relationship which is nonetheless inextricably marked by class difference.
Marianne’s family lives in a wealthy enclave apart from the rest of the town and her world is tightly circumscribed. She recalls, “Last week, Connell mentioned something called ‘the ghost’. Marianne had never heard of it before, she had to ask him what it was. His eyebrows shot up. The ghost, he said. The ghost estate, Mountain View. It’s like, right behind the school. Marianne had been vaguely aware of some construction on the land behind the school, but she didn’t know there was a housing estate there now, or that no one lived in it.” Throughout the book their relationship is haunted by “the ghost” of capital, which, as Jacques Derrida argues, “spectralises itself”; for it is an intangible phallus, or object of desire. Nowhere in the novel is this fact more apparent or disturbing than the scene when Connell takes Marianne to see the ghost estate:
Pretty sordid, Marianne said aloud. Connell was quiet, just looking around.
… Please tell me you’ve never had sex on that mattress.
… He didn’t say anything then, which made her feel even worse. He kicked a crushed can of Dutch Gold aimlessly and sent it skidding towards the French doors.
This is probably three times the size of my house, he said. Would you say?
She felt foolish for not realising what he had been thinking about. Probably, she said. I haven’t seen upstairs, obviously.
Just lying empty, no one living in it, he said. Why don’t they just give them away if they can’t sell them? I’m not being thick with you, I’m genuinely asking.
She shrugged. She didn’t actually understand why.
It’s something to do with capitalism, she said.
Yeah, everything is, that’s the problem, isn’t it?
… She would have lain on the ground and let him walk over her body if he wanted, he knew that. … If I wanted you to fuck me here, she said, would you do it?
His expression didn’t change but his hands moved around under her jumper to show he was listening. After a few seconds he said: Yeah. If you wanted to, yeah. You’re always making me do such weird things.
This passage deftly illustrates the convoluted ways in which sexual desire and emotional capital play out across a political backdrop within the novel. Marianne views the ghost estate from a privileged vantage point, and can only comment upon the “sordid” nature of the place. They enter a large house that stands vacant, with its gaping, “empty window holes” and “mattress stained badly with … what looked like blood.” Marianne perceives that it is “filthy” and “dark”, and is disgusted by its air of degeneracy. In contrast, Connell is repulsed by the injustice of such sprawling homes remaining unoccupied during a national housing crisis. In 2011, the year when this scene takes place, a government census lists the number of ghost estate properties in the Republic of Ireland at more than 3,000. Both Marianne and Connell consider the empty house to be a phallic site of social excess. At the same time, the erotic charge that suffuses this space of consuming desire also imbues the power dynamic between them. They recognise on a subconscious level the libidinal economy that produces this phenomenon, but they are too young and inexperienced to be able to articulate this fact beyond observing that “It’s something to do with capitalism.” Inarticulacy about social politics is a persistent problem for the characters in Normal People, who debate about local and global politics endlessly but have difficulty explaining how political systems structure their relationships, often to detrimental effect.
In his review of Normal People for the London Review of Books, novelist Adam Mars-Jones seemed baffled by Rooney’s coolly observant and unflinching style, and implied that her books are merely decorative aesthetic objects. Commenting that they were “mapped with an unusual scrupulous smoothness”, he wondered “whether she gives quite enough shape to the story”. In fact, he found her work so “unusual” that he used this descriptor no less than three times within the piece – also citing the books’ “unusual sensibility” and “unusual quantities of acclaim and assurance”. The deceptive smoothness of Rooney’s prose belies her meticulous attention to narrative structure, which frames the actions of individuals within larger relational, networked, and historicised contexts. This finely layered construction undergirds Normal People, which started as a short story that depicts a 23-year-old Connell taking Marianne to a dentist appointment. Marianne and Connell first appeared in print in September 2016, in Rooney’s tale “At the Clinic”, published by The White Review. She explains: “I kept wanting to write about these characters … and their relationship had this texture to it because of their history. Eventually, I thought, what if I just went back and just told their story from the beginning, chronologically.” Rooney manoeuvres dexterously between the compact short story form and the dilative composition of the novel, expanding Marianne and Connell’s love story in order to test its limits. She portrays the tumultuous years of adolescence and early adulthood within a period of historical crisis to demonstrate how seemingly minor blunders can incite a destructive pattern, “like a ceaseless repetition of the same infinitesimally small mistake”. An artful, nuanced take on life in post-Tiger Ireland, Normal People is a breathtaking reflection on love and unequal exchange between two people seeking equilibrium in a time of perilous instability.
Dr Dawn Miranda Sherratt-Bado is an academic and a dual specialist in Irish and Caribbean Studies. She has taught at Maynooth University, the University of Edinburgh, and the Scottish Universities’ International Summer School (SUISS). She is co-editor of Female Lines: New Writing by Women from Northern Ireland (New Island Books, 2017). Dawn has also published in Irish Studies Review, Breac, Callaloo, Open Library of Humanities, the Sunday Business Post, Four Nations History and Writing the Troubles. She is a regular contributor to the Dublin Review of Books, The Honest Ulsterman and The Irish Times. Follow her on Twitter @drdawnmiranda.