In Sally Rooney’s tremendous second novel, two young Irish people confront the big issues of the day: awkwardness, misunderstanding and an inability to say what they really think…
Connell and Marianne of Carricklea, Co. Sligo, are in their last year of school.
Which uni to choose is one question that requires some consideration.
Another is whether they should have sex with each other, as in spite of a verbally confirmed attraction, there are social complexities to factor in.
For a start, he is popular and she is an awkward misfit.
“She has no friends and spends her lunchtime alone reading novels. A lot of people really hate her.”
His mother is her family’s cleaner.
And her family are awful, especially the revolting, possessive brother Alan.
So “Before he lets her in” – she has come to Connell’s house, to, you know – “he looks over her shoulder, to make sure that no one has seen her arrive.”
Fortunately no nosey parkers are on duty to prevent the spark from catching, although pretending they are not seeing each other is just one of the many windows they create for uncertainty to creep in and spread havoc.
By the time this intense love story ends (and ends magnificently) four years later, it’s as if they have endured 15 gruelling rounds – including black eyes and broken noses – without ever being manipulative, violent or false with each other.
That’s not to say there aren’t profound communication issues, from pure teenage gormlessness to agonising moments when the chance to speak up is missed, leaving life to impose a dismaying default solution.
Then there’s the tricky business of adapting to the sexual tastes of another, other people merging preferentially into the timeline of a relationship, and…it could be anyone’s story, as the title implies.
Written mainly in the present, that being the only tense we ever experience, after all, with pauses to fill in key developments, Normal People is expertly composed in an even, matter-of-fact tone.
There’s no added drama from the author; the tension emerges without verbal theatrics, and the episodic style reads almost like a series of collisions.
Not crunching, like a tackle, but unexpected and transformative sideswipes.
Can people change each other for the better, the book asks?
Or are we just going to cannon from one queasy unlearned lesson to the next?
Prepare to be optimistic – and blown away.
This review first appeared in issue 4 of Strong Words. You can buy back issues, current issues or subscriptions here: https://webscribe.co.uk/magazine/strongwords