Sally Rooney sold her first two books to Faber at the age of 25, and Normal People suggests the decision was a no-brainer. I can think only of Rachel Cusk (whom Rooney resembles in imparting so much with such elegant concision) and Karl Ove Knausgaard as possessing Rooney’s ability to write such deceptively slight-seeming (but in fact — hyperbole alert — often Chekhovian) yet mesmerizing and addictive literary fiction.
There’s little immediately obvious in Normal People (or her prior novel Conversations with Friends) that might point to Rooney being in possession of a rare talent. At first glance, you might be forgiven for wondering what all the fuss was about. But very quickly the style — spritely and shorn of all literary fat; dialogue-heavy — Rooney employs gathers traction and force until you find yourself irked at having to put the thing down.
Marianne is grinning now. She exercises an open contempt for people in school. She has no friends and spends her lunchtimes alone reading novels. A lot of people really hate her. Her father died when she was thirteen and Connell has heard she has a mental illness now or something. It’s true she is the smartest person in school. He dreads being left alone with her like this, but he also finds himself fantasising about things he could say to impress her.
You’re not top of the class in English, he points out.
She licks her teeth, unconcerned.
Maybe you should give me grinds, Connell, she says.
He feels his ears get hot. She’s probably just being glib and not suggestive, but if she is being suggestive it’s only to degrade him by association, since she is considered an object of disgust. She wears ugly thick-soled flat shoes and doesn’t put make-up on her face. People have said she doesn’t shave her legs or anything. Connell once heard that she spilled chocolate ice cream on herself in the school lunchroom, and she went to the girls’ bathrooms and took her blouse off to wash it in the sink. That’s a popular story about her, everyone has heard it. If she wanted, she could make a big show of saying hello to Connell in school. See you this afternoon, she could say, in front of everyone. Undoubtedly it would put him in an awkward position, which is the kind of thing she usually seems to enjoy. But she has never done it.
What were you talking to Miss Neary about today? says Marianne.
Oh. Nothing. I don’t know. Exams.
Marianne twists the spoon around inside the jar.
Does she fancy you or something? Marianne says.
Connell watches her moving the spoon. His ears still feel very hot.
Why do you say that? he says.
God, you’re not having an affair with her, are you?
Obviously not. Do you think it’s funny joking about that?
Sorry, says Marianne. She has a focused expression, like she’s looking through his eyes into the back of his head.
You’re right, it’s not funny, she says. I’m sorry.
He nods, looks around the room for a bit, digs the toe of his shoe into a groove between the tiles.
Sometimes I feel like she does act kind of weird around me, he says. But I wouldn’t say that to people or anything.
Marianne is obviously unusual, a terminal outsider from a rich but odd family, a plain-looking and unconventional girl. She sees Connell when he turns up to meet his mum, who cleans at Marianne’s house; Connell is clearly a popular and at least superficially conventional student from the opposite end of the socio-economic scale. Both are amongst the smartest in their school, but both run in vastly different social circles. Marianne has no interest or need in currying favor with anyone; she’s both seemingly uninterested in other people and protected from the requirement of networking by wealth. Connell is doing his best to fit in and needs other people to thrive; he also needs validation.
The two are drawn together out of their mutual incongruence around groups, that the whole charade of school and jostling crudely for attention is something the other also despises. They’re unclubbable allies whose only moments of clarity and respite are while mutually resolving their outlier statuses, and despite her awkward uncertainties and his appreciation of his own shallowness, and that Marianne is not the girl he is supposed to be pursuing, her cachet unaligned with his own (which only adds to his interest), the inevitable ensues.
You know you were saying the other day that you like me, he said. In the kitchen you said it, when we were talking about school.
Did you mean like as a friend, or what?
She stared down into her lap. She was wearing a corduroy skirt and in the light from the window she could see it was flecked with pieces of lint.
No, not just as a friend, she said.
Oh, okay. I was wondering.
He sat there, nodding to himself.
I’m kind of confused about what I feel, he added. I think it would be awkward in school if anything happened with us.
No one would have to know.
He looked up at her, directly, with total attention. She knew he was going to kiss her, and he did. His lips were soft. His tongue moved into her mouth slightly. Then it was over and he was drawing away. He seemed to remember he was holding the book, and began to look at it again.
That was nice, she said.
He nodded, swallowed, glanced down at the book once more. His attitude was so sheepish, as if it had been rude of her even to make reference to the kiss, that Marianne started to laugh. He looked flustered then.
Alright, he said. What are you laughing for?
You’re acting like you’ve never kissed anyone before.
Well, I haven’t, she said.
He put his hand over his face. She laughed again, she couldn’t stop herself, and then he was laughing too. His ears were very red and he was shaking his head. After a few seconds he stood up, holding the book in his hand.
Don’t go telling people in school about this, okay? he said.
Like I would talk to anyone in school.
He left the room. Weakly she crumpled off the seat, down onto the floor, with her legs stretched out in front of her like a rag doll. While she sat there she felt as if Connell had been visiting her house only to test her, and she had passed the test, and the kiss was a communication that said: You passed. She thought of the way he’d laughed when she said she’d never kissed anyone before. For another person to laugh that way might have been cruel, but it wasn’t like that with him.
Marianne is casually groped in front of peers largely indifferent to her shock and distress; Rachel, a blatant and amusingly awful rival for Connell’s affections delights in such a disaster; Connell comforts Marianne and eventually takes her home. This is the first occasion he’s shown his feelings for her amongst the group (they usually ignore each other to save his embarrassment). Eventually they end up in bed together, but it’s still illicit and slightly shameful to Connell, to the extent that he can’t even confide in his mother about any of it.
So is Marianne your girlfriend, then? said Lorraine.
What does that mean? You’re having sex with her but she’s not your girlfriend? You’re prying into my life now, he said. I don’t like that, it’s not your business.
He returned to the bag and removed a carton of eggs, which he placed on the countertop beside the sunflower oil.
Is it because of her mother? said Lorraine. You think she’d frown on you?
Because she might, you know.
Frown on me? said Connell. That’s insane, what have I ever done?
I think she might consider us a little bit beneath her station.
He stared at his mother across the kitchen while she put a box of own-brand cornflakes into the press. The idea that Marianne’s family considered themselves superior to himself and Lorraine, too good to be associated with them, had never occurred to him before. He found, to his surprise, that the idea made him furious.
What, she thinks we’re not good enough for them? he said.
I don’t know. We might find out.
She doesn’t mind you cleaning their house but she doesn’t want your son hanging around with her daughter? What an absolute joke. That’s like something from nineteenth-century times, I’m actually laughing at that.
You don’t sound like you’re laughing, said Lorraine.
The reluctance to treat the relationship as anything but a secret is all wasted energy: far too late Connell realizes that everyone knew anyway and nobody cared. But before that harrowing (all the more for it being so obvious, and confirmation of a ruinous narcissism) epiphany the two will break apart, find the pull of what each offers the other too much to be deprived of for too long, and then part ways once again leaving old, stitched-up wounds unpicked and agape, until the only means of reparation — another reunion — is once again sought. This return/abandonment scenario runs through the novel right to the close, and ultimately suggests two people incapable of being alone or within the confines of a relationship, but also makes plenty of indirect and persuasive comment on the inadequacy of conventional relationship parameters, to which these two candidates futilely attempt to adapt to.
Connell inexplicably (but convincingly; this is one of Rooney’s chief attributes — everything she attempts works, purely down to brilliant characterization) asks Rachel to go to the Debutante Ball, a gesture he knows will crush Marianne, and the novel then jumps ahead to their next confrontation. Marianne has a habit of letting Connell off the hook, and regularly leaves the door open by retaining an unflustered (or indifferent? — Connell is often unsure, and has to falteringly find his way back to who she is) mood.
Jesus Christ, she says. Connell Waldron! From beyond the grave.
He coughs and, in a panic to appear normal, says: When did you take up smoking?
To Gareth, to her friends, she adds: We went to school together. Fixing her gaze on Connell again, looking radiantly pleased, she says: Well, how are you? He shrugs and mumbles: Yeah, alright, good. She looks at him as if her eyes have a message in them. Would you like a drink? she says. He holds up the bottle Gareth gave him. I’ll get you a glass, she says. Come on inside. She goes up the steps to him. Over her shoulder she says: Back in a second. From this remark, and from the way she was standing on the steps, he can tell that all these people at the party are her friends, she has a lot of friends, and she’s happy. Then the front door shuts behind them and they’re in the hallway, alone.
He follows her to the kitchen, which is empty and hygienically quiet. Matching teal surfaces and labelled appliances. The closed window reflects the lighted interior, blue and white. He doesn’t need a glass but she takes one from the cupboard and he doesn’t protest. Taking her jacket off, she asks him how he knows Gareth. Connell says they have classes together. She hangs her jacket on the back of a chair. She’s wearing a longish grey dress, in which her body looks narrow and delicate.
Everyone seems to know him, she says.
He’s one of these campus celebrities, says Connell.
That makes her laugh, and it’s like everything is fine between them, like they live in a slightly different universe where nothing bad has happened but Marianne suddenly has a cool boyfriend and Connell is the lonely, unpopular one.
He’d love that, says Marianne.
He seems to be on a lot of like, committees for things.
She smiles, she squints up at him. Her lipstick is very dark, a wine colour, and she’s wearing make-up on her eyes.
I’ve missed you, she says.
This directness, coming so soon and so unexpectedly, makes him blush. He starts pouring the beer into the glass to divert his attention.
Yeah, you too, he says. I was kind of worried when you left school and all that. You know, I was pretty down about it.
Well, we never hung out much during school hours.
No. Yeah. Obviously.
And what about you and Rachel? says Marianne. Are you still together?
No, we broke up there during the summer.
In a voice just false enough to sound nearly sincere, Marianne says: Oh. I’m sorry.
At no point are we led to understand that either Marianne or Connell will drift apart for long, or that any of their intervening relationships are likely to last. Much of the novel’s enjoyment is derived from seeing this genuinely likeable, if fraught, match-up reconvene; much of its power is hewn from the impossibility that any reunion can last.
Marianne’s home life becomes a growing if disturbing matter of relevance. Her long-dead father, it’s revealed, used to beat her up; her brother, a hectoring, leering monster, has taken on this mantle and aggressively hounds her whenever she’s in the house, or whenever she returns once she’s left, the level of his rage, steeped in a parental model that exculpates and validates his vile habit, worsening until a particularly violent confrontation leaves Marianne with a broken nose. (This harrowing scene, an extreme but typical unravelling among such deeply dysfunctional siblings, is compounded by the matter of Marianne seeking openly violent relationships in which she is submissively beaten by a series of appalling predators, such as a Swede called Lukas who ties her up and takes photos of her in degrading poses; such acts make warped sense of her worthlessness and subjugation and yet offer brief, vacuous emancipation from it. She even asks Connell to perform such acts, but he refuses, which is yet another cue for their coming apart.) Connell is the only person she thinks of to ask for help, and for all the complexities surrounding their failure to resolve their attraction to each other, he instinctively drops everything to run to her aid. But it’s a disaster that you imagine is merely the precursor to one greater still.
Normal People is a beguiling work that quickly and uncannily fleshes out several indelibly wrought characters, in particular the two central players, Marianne and Connell, whose misfortunes, mutual and exclusive (not that anything either does occurs out of the other’s shadow), and messy shucking-off of adolescent skins becomes a desperately compulsive drama. Marianne, we begin to feel, is not going to change, and Connell, after fluctuating dalliances with “normal” life, spins back into her orbit, having tried to change, to leave her behind, to eschew the claustrophobia of being that close to someone, relents and allows who he really is some respite.
You can’t achieve any of this — a slender storyline entirely reliant on the two central figures being compelling enough (I won’t say likeable; I found both extremely likeable but doubt all readers will, and surely far more important for a character to be intriguing than potential good company) — without fascinating characters, and characters are fascinating either through what they say and do or what they don’t say and do, and the meanings implicit in both acts and non-acts. The combination of outward and inward dialogue here — and the avoidance of exposition — creates two very complicated counterparts tormented by themselves, only at ease with each other, until the ease becomes something else, much misreading and misrepresentation is allowed to unfold, and a coming-apart augments self-loathing on both counts, which is then exacerbated by the fact that neither of these people are fully formed individuals. Much of their character is formed from what they see in each other, and how the other perceives them, a perception that is in itself subject to the usual mercurial changes and doubts.
It’s interesting that as Connell begins to understand how he feels and who he might be, this acceleration in his self-perception occurs largely through writing. He composes long emails to Marianne and at one point, when meeting her along with other friends (which include the most enduring of her appalling partners, a ghastly Tory thug who revels in the imbalance of their relationship) bemoans being in her presence as it means he can’t write to her instead. He can’t think while around her, only react and want; when writing to her from a distance he understands what she means to him and in turn what he really wants — to keep her in his life. He can’t communicate with anyone else in remotely the same way, and wonders (unlike the reader) why…and in the meantime develops as a writer, spurred on by his muse.
Rooney’s ear is often troublingly dead-on, and much of the novel’s success is drawn from the mortifying precision with which she assembles her protagonists’ woes via how their relationship falters, develops, comes apart. Neither can quite get a firm handle on the other, or themselves. But together they experience fleeting peace, a peace that can’t last. They recognise in each other the only place in which the world can be shut out, but soon forget that the world is, in fact, no real place for them, and yet it’s something that has to be contended with. While their bond isn’t illusory, it’s corroding, and untenable, and they will eventually both have to become whoever they’re going to become, at a disinterested world’s behest, without the person who knows and understands them best.
Do you think it would be better if we had never been together? she says.
I don’t know. For me it’s hard to imagine my life that way. Like, I don’t know where I would have gone to college then or where I would be now.
She pauses, lets this thought roll around for a moment, keeps her hand flat on her abdomen.
It’s funny the decisions you make because you like someone, he says, and then your whole life is different. I think we’re at that weird age where life can change a lot from small decisions. But you’ve been a very good influence on me overall, like I definitely am a better person now, I think. Thanks to you.
She lies there breathing. Her eyes are burning but she doesn’t make any move to touch them.
When we were together in first year of college, she says, were you lonely then? No. Were you?
No. I was frustrated sometimes but not lonely. I never feel lonely when I’m with you.
Yeah, he says. That was kind of a perfect time in my life, to be honest. I don’t think I was ever really happy before then.
So it’s a horribly wrenching, moving tale, in which you’re simultaneously delighted to see the two protagonists back together whenever that happens (and want to know if such recouplings might also be on the cards beyond the novel’s agonising but astute ending), but then fearful of what’s going to go wrong and how badly, and the subsequent fallout. You can only create a story as simple yet enduring as this one if the nuances of behaviour, the potency of the spark, the import of every act is freighted with meaning and urgency and vitality and care. Sally Rooney cares about people, understands them and empathises with them. When you’re as good as she is, when even the briefest cameo is invested with the kind of deft, vivid élan that renders their authenticity beyond question, that goes a long way.