‘Marianne had the sense that her real life was happening somewhere very far away, happening without her, and she didn’t know if she would ever find out where it was and become part of it.’ This is the most frustrating part of being alienated and young. You hope that there’s a better life in store for you but you can’t yet bank on it.
Sally Rooney appeared two years ago with Conversations with Friends and has rightly been fêted as one of the most important writers of her generation. The question of generation matters because she’s writing about young people. Both novels feature protagonists who are undergraduates in Rooney’s own Dublin. What’s remarkable is how she’s at once fully immersed in the world she writes about (the narrative voice easily convinces as the voice of a 20-year-old) and able forensically to observe both the characters and their world, as though from a great distance. It’s this combination that makes her so convincingly the real thing: a unique, fully formed talent.
The plot of Normal People is simple. Marianne and Connell are school friends, brought together by a strong intellectual and emotional connection but separated by the brutal segregations of the young. His mother is her mother’s cleaner and, more importantly, he is cool, while she’s a geeky loner. They fall in love but he pretends not to know her when at school and the relationship disintegrates. When they next meet they are both studying at Trinity College. Now she is the cool one and he is lost among this new, worldlier set. They resume their relationship and the book charts its fluctuations and ruptures.
The straightforward plot allows Rooney to experiment with narrative technique.