Some novels seem like they’re written with the sole purpose of luring me in, and Sally Rooney’s Normal People is the greatest recent addition to that category. Normal People does not pretend to be a sprawling social novel, telling us how we live now. Short but precise and easily inhaled in a quick weekend, it tells us how two Irish teenagers lived then, and in so doing, she can speak, if not for a generation, at least for an inwardly-probing and literary-inclined segment of it. Rooney has set the bar for a new wave of writers, and the rest of us need to get our acts together.
If Rooney is a sign of what we millennials will bring to fiction, I have some hope for us yet. Normal People is about two fellow millennials’ interactions between 2011 and 2015, so yes, they send texts and emails and check Facebook and so on, but at no point does it feel like a forced statement on use of technology, or any sort of commentary on how technology is changing lives. It’s just a fact of the characters’ existence, and one gets a sense of how little those details matter up against the more powerful, interpersonal challenges that drive Normal People: love, longing, betrayal, hurt. And while the characters have political lives, Rooney (an avowed Marxist) uses them smartly, and lets them bubble up only when it would make sense for them to appear. (The one digression she does allow, a brief discourse on the political limitations of literature, at least fits with a protagonist’s own struggles.) This is a novel about two people and their relationship, period, and its understatement allows it to say more than an overwrought Great Irish Novel could have.
Rooney’s tightly wound novel is a millennial love story, the on-again, off-again tale of two Irish kids from Carricklea, a fictional town in provincial County Sligo. Connell is a well-regarded, jovial athlete in high school who would rather keep to himself and read books; outcast Marianne is an odd duck rich girl who can’t wait to flee her backwater hometown. Their relationship is fraught by class, as Connell’s mother, Lorraine, cleans the expansive home of Marianne’s icy family. Both lack fathers; Connell’s never figured in his life, while Marianne’s is deceased, and they both bear some scars that their high school social circles will never understand. But Connell and Marianne are the two most driven students in Carricklea, which leads them to find one another and then make their way to Trinity College, Ireland’s most esteemed university. At Trinity their roles begin to shift, as Marianne starts to find her crowd while Connell is suddenly out of his element among the Irish upper crust, his basic decency and quiet smarts unable to attract much attention in the breeding ground of the Dublin elite. The pair struggles to make its way in the world, never formally attached but always drifting in and out of each other’s orbits, united by ties they cannot shake.
Long stretches of Normal People are dialogue, but Rooney eschews the use of quotation marks, a tactic I’m rather fond of: it forces the reader to track it carefully and breaks down some of the barrier between the third-person narration that drives the novel forward into a sort of haze, one that both lulls the reader into the rhythms of Marianne and Connell’s complicated love life and forces one to keep track of who exactly said what. Rooney’s prose rides along with a droll simplicity, and its matter-of-fact statements that belie their own gravity. It’s not hard to picture her as the sharp, snide girl injecting venom from the back of the classroom, and there was certainly a phase when this kid who sees a lot of himself in Connell would have been attracted to her Marianne.
Normal People is a superb bildungsroman, a genre of novel that remains my favorite. It takes young people from a state in which the world’s possibilities open before them through the growing alienation when reality does not match dreams, through times in life when doors begin to close and they must learn who they are, where they come from, and just what they might become. Jaded outsiders will probably always be best at capturing the halls of power, and much like Fitzgerald in New York, Rooney knives through her characters’ social circles in Dublin with a brilliant exactitude. Even as Marianne and Connell bust out of Carricklea, it pulls them both back; sometimes out of necessity, sometimes out of grief, and finally in something that may begin to approach catharsis.
As any great novel should, Normal People reaches its peak in its final pages, a rush to a climax followed by a struggle toward resolution. For all its world-weary cynicism, for all its characters’ brokenness and painful missteps, it still knows that intimacy is not impossible, that people still have jobs to do in spite of it all. My generation’s great artistic calling compels us to find the shards of a broken sublime, and Sally Rooney does just that.