The millennial generation of Irish novelists lays great store by loving relationships. One of the encomia on the cover of Donal Ryan’s Strange Flowers (Irish Book Awards Novel of 2020) declares: ‘You have to truly love people to write like this.’
It’s hard to imagine that being said of Colm Tóibín or Anne Enright (let alone Vladimir Nabokov, Evelyn Waugh or Muriel Spark). But there are new kids on the block, and forensically intense examination of feelings between pairs of friends or lovers have propelled the fictions of Sally Rooney into the stratosphere. The phenomenal success of Conversations with Friends and Normal People, along with her influential editorship of the reputation-making literary magazine Stinging Fly, have made her a power in the land.
Her trademark formula combines close-up physical observation, sharp dialogue, will-they-won’t-they haverings and plenty of sex. If the content seems vapid, that is no barrier to televisual impact. More interestingly, there is clearly an ambition to say more than she seems to be saying. The saving grace of Normal People was its beady focus on class differences in modern Ireland, too rarely addressed in contemporary fiction.
Rooney’s third novel, Beautiful World, Where Are You? has much in common with its predecessors, but rather audaciously tries to discuss their tricky inheritance through the persona of Alice, ‘widely despised celebrity novelist’, who has achieved meteoric success with her first two novels and feels bad about it. She is 29, the same age as her friend Eileen, an underpaid literary editor, and Felix, a rather unlikely warehouse worker. The fourth point of the quadrilateral, Simon, a religiously inclined ‘policy adviser for a left-wing parliamentary group’, is five years older. Eileen has been obsessed with him since childhood. There are fashionable nods to bisexuality, which don’t go anywhere much.