A sharply observed portrait of an on-off romance, Normal People is a book you need to read.
It charts the intense intellectual and emotional relationship between Marianne and Connell, a young Galway couple from strikingly different backgrounds, over four years, beginning in their final year at high school and ending during their final year at Dublin’s Trinity College.
Posh and smart, Marianne is a detached outsider who doesn’t fit in and isn’t easily liked. She’s damaged, and has an unnerving dark wildness about her. Well liked and practical, Connell is poor and intelligent. His mother cleans Marianne’s home. Together, they have “the same unnameable spiritual injury”, which sees them develop an unshakable but troubled bond, jaundiced by the difficulties of communication and the complexities of power dynamics, privilege, class and social ease. Elegantly gliding back and forth through time as the duo navigate education, holiday jobs, travel, social dynamics and attempts at relationships with other lovers, Normal People is as much about class as it is about sex. Attending college via a scholarship, Connell views money as “a substance that makes the world go around”, the idea of which he finds both “sexy and corrupt”, along with the uncomfortable knowledge that his association with Marianne elevates him to the status of the rich-adjacent.
An itchy anxiety runs through Normal People. Painfully aware of their differing class and social backgrounds – what would their peers think? – the sturdy gravitational pull between Marianne and Connell is palpable. But it’s never easy. Marianne has 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 a part of it”. She is menacingly and relentlessly bullied by her brother. And her lawyer mother, Denise, enables this behaviour, having decided a long time ago that it is acceptable for men to use aggression towards Marianne as a way of expressing themselves.
Despite its emotional freight, Normal People never feels heavy or oppressive, but is immensely affecting and immersive as it beautifully traverses the rocky eddy of intimacy. Rooney is a sharply observant and fiercely empathetic writer with a clean, spare style. Her observations are utterly exquisite.
Normal People feels bracingly fresh and alive, it crackles with energy and feeling. It is a nuanced and seasoned take on that complicated thing called love, and an ecstatic novel of melancholy pleasures to luxuriate in.
NORMAL PEOPLE, by Sally Rooney (Faber & Faber, $32.99)
This article was first published in the November 3, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.