Normal People by Sally Rooney made me feel miserable. I didn’t begin by loving the novel, not even by liking it; I initially found the profoundly depressing story of Connell and Marianne rather annoying and monotonous. Fifty pages in I realised how downhearted this sorrowful depiction of reality made me feel, and, although I might come off as a weird person who loves books that provoke sorrow, I loved it. Quietly creeping under my skin, it brought forwards a reality that unfortunately quite a few of us tend to ignore or blame on feelings specific or brought upon someone by teenagerhood.
The relationship between Marianne and Connell is characterized by a type of anger and uneasiness that some people might find difficult to understand, however, I perceived it more of an illustration of our constant tendency and need to please or make a good impression in a world preoccupied with the outside (social status and looks) and not the inside – that being feelings, childhood trauma, sexuality. The two are opposites, but somewhat the same: Connell is the typical popular lad who plays sports and is in the school’s Gaelic football team, while Marianne is the wealthy but shy (or “cold”, as some might say) girl who nobody likes. However, they are united through insecurity, confusion and their general interest for exploring sexuality. The story is character driven, more specifically it is steered by the dynamic between the two characters. And if talking about characters – they are realistic. It is so difficult to find realistic characters to relate to that when I stumble across one I instantly praise the author. Sally Rooney succeeds at contouring the characters of two people whom tragedy and pain is brought upon by social standards and expectations in such a manner that the reader can only imagine them as real as their neighbour or colleague or perhaps even a friend. More specifically, these are real people who experience real problems, including domestic abuse and mental health issues, and with whom it is easy to identify with.
Another key element the author is building her novel on is communication – or rather the lack of it. As far as I felt like ripping the pages or tearing my hair out when they were talking but not really saying anything, I must admit that the frustration I had with their inability to speak to each other was beneficial and probably exactly what Rooney was intending to provoke in the hearts of her readers. On multiple occasions it even felt like their communication is not through words, but through sex – of which there is a fair bit of, but the book doesn’t contain graphic descriptions of intercourse.
All aspects considered, Normal People is not an entertaining novel, it is not built upon a specific ideology and it doesn’t offer a lesson to anyone, but it shines a light on adolescence and young adulthood and experiences associated with these two periods. If anything, it reaffirms and confirms the validity of feelings without implying sentimentality. Does the novel deserve critics’ praises, being longlisted for the Man Booker prize and being adapted into a miniseries? It certainly does. For anyone looking for a read to resonate with, for a gut-wrenching book and for a narrative to hate and love at the same time, Normal People is the right choice.
Title: Normal People
Author: Sally Rooney
Publication Date: 2019