Paddy Kehoe reviews the best-selling Sally Rooney novel as Lenny Abrahamson's TV adaptation is scheduled to begin on RTÉ One, on Tuesday next.
The author understands enduring Irishness in her engaging, second novel which mostly deals in sturm und drang, sifting forensically through the leavings of intense pain, he writes.
Normal People follows the author’s successful debut, Conversations with Friends, and the central, on-off relationship is documented with remarkable narrative commitment. The saga commences as the protagonists, Connell and Marianne, begin a sexual relationship in their last year in school in the West of Ireland town of Carricklea.
Connell’s mother Lorraine cleans the house for Marianne’s mother, a solicitor, and the secret lovers try to keep the thing quiet. They never really talk or give any indication of their intimacy to others. Meanwhile, back in the visible public world, Connell asks a certain Rachel to his grad dance. This so traumatises Marianne that she gives up going to school and decides to prepare for the Leaving Cert at home. She is academically bright enough to handle that too, incidentally.
The aforementioned Rachel is a spiteful cipher of a character and there are indeed a few dull, lightly-sketched people in the 266-page story, which might have come in better around 200 pages (the same could be said of most new novels, not enough scalpel work). These minor characters have slight presence in the story, as the greater quotient is left to the central pair who are intensely spot-lit throughout.
These are wholly fictional creations but readers will certainly find echoes in the foibles and failings of their own stories. There is a sense of the fabric of true life, with its moments of profound joy and its interludes of deep heartbreak.
Before the serious fissure in the relationship caused by the grad episode, Marianne and Connell had decided to enrol for Trinity College, at her urging. They duly secure sufficient points and move to Dublin, but their paths do not cross until a vaguely disorientated Connell meets Marianne at a party.
Sally Rooney understands the sense of dislocation that a student such as Connell, who comes from a working class background in a West of Ireland town, might feel at such a social gathering. The Mayowoman gets it down simply and plainly, much like another Connacht writer, John McGahern used to do. Take the following sentences:
Back home, Connell’s shyness never seemed like much of an obstacle to his social life, because everyone knew who he was already, and there was never any need to introduce himself or create impressions about his personality. If anything, his personality seemed like something external to himself, managed by the opinions of others, rather than anything he individually did or produced. Now he has a sense of invisibility, nothingness, with no reputation to recommend him to anyone.
Has adapting to Dublin got easier in the year 2018 than it was in 2011, when Connell feels ill-at-ease as a so-called `culchie' at that Trinity shindig? Or would such disorientation have been a college phenomenon, and not necessarily a DCU one? Discuss. Suffice to say that following the student party encounter, the flickering dynamo that lights Marianne and Connell’s way resumes its rickety, uncertain glow.
The two protagonists in Normal People have youth on their side, which gives them some, but not enough physical resilience for the emotional ordeals they set themselves. Are their imaginations too keen, too vivid, perhaps? If he had stuck with the sport, and she was handy at the camogie, would they have fared better? Are they just commitment-phobes in the end, too fussy by half? This reviewer found himself decidedly paternal with these poor creatures.
Connell and Marianne suffer greatly, not like lovers in an Arthur Koestler novel, say, where they would be subject to the whims of secret police and the prohibitions of a dictatorial state. They suffer because of a surfeit of free will, and because of the fall-out from the messy facts of their family stories, deliberately left veiled. Yet they both win lucrative scholarships at college and end up, you could argue, with more money than sense.
He suffers from the pressure which the ups and downs of their relationship exert, she appears to suffer in more public ways, although we learn how the suffering she endures privately is the worst of all. For some strange reason best known to themselves, ancillary characters are frequently not nice to her, perhaps because of her privileged background and that illusory appearance of self-confidence.
The two protagonists in Normal People have youth on their side, which gives them some, but not enough physical resilience for the emotional ordeals they set themselves.
Meanwhile, drink and drugs exacerbate the pain and there are ill-judged sexual encounters, including violence as part of sexual relations, though not between Connell and Marianne. (They both spend time through the four year- trajectory of the novel with other people, theirs is an erratic liaison to say the least.)
Excess and hedonism run riot and we are still expected to feel sorry for Rooney’s ill-starred couple, but that is an entirely reasonable expectation and to complain is missing the point - they do have very real problems.There are enough tender moments too, expertly handled, to balance the self-destruct mode. Just to list some of those kamikaze episodes, Marianne passes out on the floor after too much Cointreau, while Connell gets so drunk he sees everything double and has no idea how he got home. Or he drinks so much punch at the launch party for the literary periodical which he edits that he simply cannot stand and Marianne has to help him home.
Or he is beaten up and robbed while in a seriously inebriated state, but still comes out of it smiling through, albeit ruefully. There you have it, the enduring Irishness which Sally Rooney understands. At times, her characters seem wizened by wisdom, old heads on young shoulders, at other times they just act plain silly. It's a curious tension in the depiction of both characters.
Rooney uses an endlessly shifting flashback mode with admirable ease throughout, and she is not interested in the verbal pyrotechnics of what might be loosely termed the post-Trainspotting school of writing. The latter approach informs quite a deal of new Irish writing, which, while admirable as experiment, can sometimes fall flat. She holds her nerve, rather, in simple sentences throughout the fractious saga.
These are wholly fictional creations but readers will certainly find echoes in the foibles and failings of their own stories. There is a sense of the fabric of true life, with its moments of profound joy and its interludes of deep heartbreak in Normal People. In sum, an engaging but tough story.