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Thursday, October 25, 2018

'Normal People' by Sally Rooney


From the BLURB:

Connell and Marianne grow up in the same small town in rural Ireland. The similarities end there; they are from very different worlds. When they both earn places at Trinity College in Dublin, a connection that has grown between them lasts long into the following years. 

This is an exquisite love story about how a person can change another person's life - a simple yet profound realisation that unfolds beautifully over the course of the novel. It tells us how difficult it is to talk about how we feel and it tells us - blazingly - about cycles of domination, legitimacy and privilege. Alternating menace with overwhelming tenderness, Sally Rooney's second novel breathes fiction with new life.

'Normal People' is Sally Rooney's second book and my first attempt to read anything by her, and I am pleasantly surprised that I didn't mind it! 

If you don't know - Rooney was this 26-year-old wunderkind Irish author whose debut 'Conversations with Friends' came out last year, and caused quite a stir. 'Normal People' has likewise continued to herald her a superstar, when it was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize... which is also why I thought I wouldn't enjoy or ever attempt to read her work; because I have this ongoing joke that the Man Booker is always just a list of books I am guaranteed not to read.

But 'Normal People' and the inundation of praise its been receiving gave me pause - especially because everyone has been calling it a revelatory millennial romance. It also alludes to as much in the blurb; "... it reveals how we learn about sex and power, the desire to hurt and be hurt, the desire to love and be loved. Here is an exquisite love story which breathes fiction with new life." 

Well, HUH! 

So I picked it up and gave it a read and - look! - I am as shocked as anyone that I found it immensely *readable* and somewhat enjoyable. But as I also said to a friend of mine - a lot of the praise I see Rooney receiving is for her writing about the complex inner-worlds and relationships of teenagers and young people and, frankly, Young Adult Literature has been doing that for a lot longer with none of this Literati Fanfare. But, whatever! 

'Normal People' is a very Man Booker prize book. Rooney, for instance, does not use quotation marks (I KNOW! Liane Moriarty had her author-character make a joke about these kinds of books in her latest 'Nine Perfect Strangers' and I snorted to think of it when I saw Rooney was one of those). 

The book reminded me a lot of British author David Nicholls' 2009 novel 'One Day' that was eventually adapted into an okay-film (P.S. - 'Normal People' is also set to be made into a mini-series). Though 'One Day' checked in on a couple for one day every year for 19-years, 'Normal People' spans only from 2011 to 2015 and in alternating-perspectives between young woman Marianne and man Connell - who know each other in high school, where Marianne lives in a small mansion infamous in their town, where Connell's mother is the cleaner - right up until their early years in college. Rooney doesn't quite give us a day-in-the-life of this couple every few years, but rather lengthy summaries in chapters that fill in the months being skipped and relationship revelations that have happened off the page. But still - for all intents - it was very 'One Day' by David Nicholls to me (hey - not that crazy, since Nicholls novel 'US' which I loved, was long-listed for the 2014 Man Booker Prize ... huh. Maybe I do read Man Booker books more than I think?) 

'Normal People' also reminded me a little of the Greta Gerwig movie 'Lady Bird' - but an Irish version. Of growing up and being torn up by love - one is set in West Ireland and the other in Sacramento, California but still the same early story beats in a lot of ways. 

For all that this is a really gorgeous book and some of the stark prose really sucker-punches you; I was still surprised at how readable it was. I thought that with alllllll these super literary types raving about it, that it'd just end up being one long metaphor wrapped around elusive prose, but then I started reading this story of a working-class boy falling for the girl in the mansion that his Mum works in as cleaner and they really just have a lot of sex and start falling for each other and I thought "Hold on a second! I totally understand this!"

Sally Rooney is also being celebrated for not punching down on millennials (as a millennial herself) - and it's nice to see critics are embracing rather than ridiculing her subject-matter of nuanced relationships between young people. 

Because here's the thing; what she's writing about isn't all that wildly different from YA. She's essentially writing with fierce finesse and tenderness about what it is to be young, aimless, feel loveless and scared of the world around you and the people in it who you let get close to you. Hi - that's what a lot of books written about - and for - teenagers are. Even when Rooney goes to dark and intense places, I was surprised at her restraint in writing - which further struck me that this is an accessible story for young people. 

I think it's wonderful that a young woman writing about young people and relationships is being celebrated - and rightly so, when 'Normal People' is as tender as a bruise to read and delightfully, surprisingly lovely too. But I personally don't think her writing is any better or worse than what young adult literature has been producing to a similarly stellar quality lately (and always). Sorry. Maybe this is what the Man Booker has been for a long time now and I just misunderstood it? But I am surprised at the level of adoration Sally Rooney is receiving, and I wish those who write YA (the women especially) could receive similar open-minded encouragement for the way they also write the tough and tender truth of what it is to be a teen. 

As my friend put it; "Funny, this dichotomy between YA people look down on and stories about teens that are taken seriously as Art." Yes. Funny - that.

Though I will say that (much as with the David Nicholls book) I should have known that a Man Booker "love story" doesn't have the requisite happy ending of commercial fiction. More's the pity.

4/5

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