Tuesday 21 May 2019

Review: Sally Rooney's Normal People rejects the 'second-album' curse with all the effortless cool of one of her characters

Fiction: Normal People, Sally Rooney, Faber & Faber, €13.99

Power, pain and punishment... Sally Rooney dissects a college romance in spectacular style. Photo: David Conachy
Power, pain and punishment... Sally Rooney dissects a college romance in spectacular style. Photo: David Conachy

Sophie White

Sally Rooney's new novel Normal People rejects the 'second-album' curse with all the effortless cool of one of her characters. Normal People sauntered directly on to the Booker longlist, confirming Rooney as a mammoth talent for anyone still undecided after her confident debut, Conversations With Friends. All this effortlessness is perhaps a misnomer. Presumably no one pens an addictive debut (or follow-up) without some blood and sweat but no writerly angst seeps into Rooney's clipped, precise and often beautiful prose.

Connell and Marianne, apparent misfits, orbit each other from secondary school to college and the tentative steps beyond. Their relationship is an ever-evolving transference of power. The opening chapters establish a disconnect in their social standing - Connell's mother is Marianne's family cleaner. In contrast, in the insular society of school, it is Connell who holds the upper hand. He is the cool guy and Marianne an outcast.

Essentially Normal People is the classic "will they, won't they?" but teased out with enough wit, self-awareness and phenomenal assurance in the writing to feel utterly new. Both Connell and Marianne are traumatised people.

Connell, the conformist, has never known his father and while close to his mother is infuriatingly passive and casually cruel at times. Rooney cleverly depicts Marianne's trauma as more overt, while remaining undefined - a device that brilliantly underscores the insidious nature of abuse when it ventures beyond the acts of violence that most often characterise it.

The wider world of the novel very much recalls that of Conversations With Friends - Trinity alums might feel a little too seen in these pages, full of parties where middle-class Marxists mingle and the posturing is off the charts. The other world is that which evolves between Connell and Marianne - the claustrophobic solitude of two people in love - or, at least, enmeshed.

Normal People manages to be both firmly rooted in the now and yet achieve a timeless quality. Rooney's characters text and email but this doesn't intrude on the mood - think the decadent bohemia of Waugh meets Updike on a glum day.

The writing is lean. Rooney gives care to the moments between moments. Connell watches Marianne drinking coffee. "She seems to pause... with the cup at her lips. He can't tell how he identifies this pause as distinct from the natural motion of her drinking but he sees it." Her care over particulars give a striking immediacy to every page, calling to mind the fine and exquisite detail of an Anne Tyler scene.

Her painterly evocations of languorous hands and limbs and impressionistic treatment of both love and violence seem to leap outside of literary influence altogether, calling up the raw beauty of an Egon Schiele.

An irritating distraction is the fetishisation of Marianne as the damaged woman. At times the thin wrists, protruding collarbones and her passive tolerance of the degradation she is both subjected to and participates in starts to grate. Though perhaps in this characterisation Rooney demands we analyse our propensity to scorn the victimised woman.

Power and its ebb and flow is constantly delineated in Normal People. Marianne muses on cruelty, saying it "does not only hurt the victim but the perpetrator also… by bullying someone else you learn something you can never forget". Marianne's disassociation during a sexual game speaks to the often-dangerous ambiguity of sexual play, while Connell's knowledge of his hold over Marianne is an "effortless tyranny". And there again is that word: effortless.

The simplicity of Rooney's novel belies the masterful rendering of her characters and their world - a world one is reluctant to leave when the last page arrives.

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