Friday 15 December 2017

Acutely observed debut leaves you wanting more

Fiction: Conversations With Friends, Sally Rooney, Faber & Faber, pbk, 372 pages, €12.74

Believe the hype: Author Sarah Rooney. Photo: Tony Gavin
Believe the hype: Author Sarah Rooney. Photo: Tony Gavin
Conversations With Friends by Sally Rooney

Meadhbh McGrath

In a novel focused on the complicated dalliances between couples, pairings and groups, the protagonist of Sally Rooney's debut immediately presents herself as part of a unit.

"Bobbi and I," the first line reads, introducing our narrator Frances and her best friend (and former girlfriend), now students at Trinity College Dublin. Outside of college, the pair perform spoken-word poetry as a double act, which Frances writes alone, but requires Bobbi's charisma to bring to life.

Feeling overshadowed by her exuberant friend, Frances is drawn in by Melissa, a 30-something photographer and essayist who takes an interest in the pair after a poetry event. They follow her to her chi-chi South Dublin home where she lives with her husband Nick, a disenchanted actor who never quite lived up to his potential.

Bobbi, coming from a well-off family, is comfortable in these bourgeois surroundings, but Frances is enchanted by Melissa's social circle.

Bobbi forms a crush on Melissa, while Frances strikes up an email flirtation with Nick that soon bleeds into real life. Their relationships only grow more complex when Frances and Bobbi join the couple on holiday at a lush villa in Provence.

At 26, Rooney has the misfortune of being surrounded by breathless hype ­- a seven-way publisher bidding war for your debut novel will do that - but it proves to be richly deserved. The subject matter may be deeply familiar, but Rooney manages to make it fresh, with a naturalistic voice that instantly pulls you in. As a coming-of-age story, it recalls Edna O'Brien's The Country Girls in its exploration of the naivety of young women, their relationships with their bodies and their sexuality in precise, lyrical language.

The archly political 'conversations' of the title can prove grating, particularly for readers who struggle to empathise with contemporary campus culture. The otherwise fluid writing is occasionally interrupted by bouts of self-indulgent intellectual posturing; group conversations or transcripts of Facebook Messenger chats covering everything from free-market capitalism and Jean Baudrillard to gender theory. It's never entirely clear whether Rooney is critiquing or supporting her characters' pretensions.

It's a difficult balance, as many of Frances's reflections offer a perfectly calibrated portrait of millennial narcissism, but the level of her introspection becomes suffocating. Frances at times comes across as too enamoured with her own cleverness, and such a tight focus on the narrator doesn't leave enough room for us to get a glimpse of the allegedly bewitching figure other characters fête her as.

The novel is strongest when it focuses on pairs. Frances and Nick's affair, and the shifting power dynamic between them, forms the intriguing backbone of the novel, but Rooney also explores Frances's friendship with Bobbi, her rivalry with Melissa, and her fraught relationship with her troubled and unhappy father. It makes for an addictive debut and an acutely observed portrait of modern intimacy that leaves you eagerly wanting more.

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