Author Sally Rooney

Sally Rooney's Normal People—sharp and witty but claustrophobically self-aware

The author has a talent for zeroing in on emotional secrets
September 19, 2018

Sally Rooney’s Man Booker long-listed novel asks: who are the normal people? Is it Marianne, the weird rich girl? Or Connell, the smart, handsome football enthusiast whose mother cleans Marianne’s house? At school in rural Ireland, Connell has the upper hand. But when the on-off couple arrive at Dublin’s Trinity College, they find the definitions of what normal is have changed. Marianne is right at home in the university’s cocoon of privilege, while working-class Connell is alienated in a world where how much your parents earn is a hot topic of conversation.

Normal People is a book about power—class power, social power, sexual power and physical power. Whether it’s the examination of how privilege works in elite universities, to a startlingly honest examination of women’s desires, Rooney explores the dynamics and currency of beauty, attraction and intelligence.

Early on, Marianne experiences a sexual assault, and the shadow of domestic abuse hangs over the narrative. Demonstrating the subtle nature of domestic bullying, coercive control and manipulation is not easy, but Rooney pulls it off exceptionally well. As the novel moves to its devastating conclusion, she asks difficult questions about self-harm, self-destruction, and the impact of abuse on women’s sense of self.

Rooney, still only 27 years old, has a talent for zeroing in on the vagaries of the heart. Her ability to focus on emotional secrets is impressive; she writes with a sharp observational eye. The dialogue is witty and intelligent, as her characters examine their inner lives, motivations and feelings. However, at times this claustrophobic self-awareness can feel too knowing—even alienating to the reader.

Normal People is a novel written with great insight into the complexities of friendship and love. It smartly reveals the confusions and dysfunctional nature of relationships, and exposes the lies we tell ourselves and each other about desire.

Normal People by Sally Rooney (Faber, £14.99)