“Sally Rooney’s Normal People has been touted as an exquisite love story for the millennial times and has cemented the 28 year-old author as the voice of a generation,” writes Darsana Mohan .
What does it mean to be painfully aware of yourself and your relationship to another person?
Sally Rooney’s Normal People applies a magnifying lens to the lives of the two protagonists Connell and Marianne as they transition from adolescence to adulthood in Ireland. The book has been touted as an exquisite love story for the millennial times and has cemented Rooney as the voice of a generation.
Rooney does have a knack for writing about young people, albeit those of a cynical and intellectual nature. Much of the millennial depiction in Normal People and her previous book, Conversations with Friends, can be attributed to how young Rooney is in real life. At 28, a lot of people her age are still navigating into adulthood. Normal People is supposed to be a cultural commentary on Irish youth and romance, one that spills over into most urban places in the world.
We meet Marianne and Connell as teenagers on a nondescript day in her house and are instantly made privy to their mutual interest. Connell’s mother Lorraine works as a cleaning lady for Marianne’s family. In their small town high school, he has social standing while she is the self-exiled misfit. When they begin their dalliance, he asks her to keep it a secret to avoid “the stigma” at school. Marianne’s acquiescence can be explained away by her age, her abusive familial relationships and her infatuation with Connell. They discover a deep understanding of each-other that intensifies through college and adulthood. Rooney’s narrative asks us to be present in their connection and to be witness to the overlapping layers of power and affection.
Connell and Marianne are put under a literary microscope throughout the book. At that level of detail, they come across as pained, lost and insufferable, as would most people. It almost feels indecent to read Normal People as if we are voyeurs to an agonising but hypnotic relationship between two broken characters.
Connell also offers the lens through which we view class structures within their college and within their relationship as Marianne exudes the clout of the elite. One instance that comes to mind is Connell’s realisation of what books really represent in his college. “It was culture as class performance”, he thinks about the co-opting of literature by the elite to feel superior. Contrary to that, within their personal space, Connell yields more influence over Marianne. Their observations - about their friends, their sexual experiences and the spaces they occupy within academia cement this juxtaposition of power skilfully.
Much of Marianne’s interactions with the world are portrayed as the outcome of trauma caused by her abusive brother and negligent mother. Her family is featured rarely in the narrative but cause intense suffering for her. Rooney does characterise Marianne quite well considering the complexity but I would have liked more back-story to Marianne’s family. Similarly, the characters of Connell’s mother and their friends left me wanting for more description. The narrative does frequent time jumps, usually every three months and its protagonist’s point of views are myopic. Names are thrown in and their actions are shown without motive which cuts away at the credibility of the story.
I also felt like the plot weaned thin after a point. It was like a game of ‘Dog and the Bone’ as the story circled around the same fatal flaw of miscommunication or lack thereof. With a thin plot, a book heavily depends on the writing to win the reader’s favour. Sally Rooney’s writing is very visual. As you read, you are asked to the smell the food they eat, feel the density of the weather and listen to the sounds that fill an apartment. This form of writing has a very hit or miss like characteristic - it is in present tense, it is poignant but sometimes mundane. It is almost an omniscient steady stream of consciousness.
So I do understand the criticism thrown at this book, especially if you look at the normal people reviews (see what I did there?) rather than those of the literary critics. I found myself almost bored or frustrated at times but remained invested enough to want to keep going.
Normal People does feel like a novel set in the now. It is akin to a kaleidoscope created of intersecting narratives - of love, sex, class, power, mental health, trauma and some others I may have probably missed. One must commend Sally Rooney for her ability to interweave the urgency of youth with age old suffering.
Darsana Mohan is a writer, poet and lover of tea. She enjoys long walks on the beach, ice creams at sunset and bowing down to our Alien Overlords.