For this month's Book Club literary critic Alex Peake-Tomkinson reviews Sally Rooney's second novel, Normal People.
Normal People, Sally Rooney's extraordinary second novel has already been longlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2018 and at 27, she could be the youngest writer ever to walk away with the prize. Anyone who has read her first novel, Conversations with Friends (2017), will hardly be surprised as they will know that she writes with breath-taking fluency. She wrote 100 000 words of her first book in just three months, by often writing for 17 hours a day and prior to this was a European debating champion. This might partly account for why the dialogue in her novels is so startlingly good.
The protagonists of Normal People, Marianne and Connell are still at school in Carricklea, Ireland when we first encounter them. Connell's mother Lorraine is Marianne's family's cleaner but no one at school knows this. Marianne is a social pariah whilst Connell is a popular member of the football team. Connell and Marianne begin sleeping together, something he asks her to conceal at school to avoid embarrassment for him. In spite (or perhaps because) of this he feels that Being alone with her is like opening a door away from normal life and then closing it behind him. It is only later, when they are at Trinity College together, that he begins to realise the full impact she has had on him. This is an often crushing love story which dissects misunderstandings beautifully, as well as delicately examining the difference between privilege and dominance.
It is also a very funny book and Rooney gently mocks the melodrama of youth, not least when Connell uneasily attends the house party of someone he doesn't know well. He finds himself shaking the host's hand a low moment in his adult life.
The novelist DBC Pierre has said that Dialogue is pace and the ongoing conversation between Connell and Marianne gives the novel a narrative propulsion that might seem at odds with its lack of ostensible action. This is a conversation that takes place not only in person but also over text messages and emails, the latter of which both parties often examine forensically. Talking and writing to Marianne makes Connell, the auto-didact, a writer (he has published a short story in the university journal by the book's end).
As important is the way in which reading changes Connell as a human being: the effect of reading Jane Austen's Emma on him is not completely asexual, though its relation to sexuality is indirect. It suggests to Connell that the same imagination he uses as a reader is necessary to understand real people also, and to be more intimate with them. There are no weak sentences in Normal People and this perfection makes demands on a reader: you are required to concentrate on each word.
Rooney frequently covers quite dark territory and Normal People touches on domestic violence, the nature of sadism and the suicide of a minor character but remarkably, this is not a depressing book. This is partly because Rooney's writing possesses a lovely wryness which will soften the hardest heart but more importantly, this is a novel about the transformative power of being loved. The love between Connell and Marianne is fragile but essential to the growth of them both. They understand the thrilling strangeness of each other in a way that no one else in their lives does. They spend most of the book not being in a relationship with each other and yet, when Connell first tells Marianne that he loves her, at a moment fairly early on, it changes her life in a pivotal way:
Even in memory she will find this moment unbearably intense, and she's aware of this now, while it's happening. She has never believed herself to be fit to be loved by any person. But now she has a new life, of which this is the first moment, and even after many years have passed she will still think: Yes, that was it, the beginning of my life.
Book images by Victoria Garcia. Portrait by Jonny Davies. Normal People is out on the 30th August, published by Faber.
This review was written by the literary critic Alex Peake-Tomkinson. The TOAST Book Club exists in a purely digital space and we hope that you will add your own opinions and thoughts below. We have three copies of Normal People to give away - all those who comment will be entered into a prize draw to win a copy. Prize draw ends 10th September.