Sally Rooney’s Normal People

If this is the first review you’ve read, and you can stomach darkness, please stop now and just read Normal People. Most reviews, positive or negative, will probably not lead you to read the book, which I think is a serious and important work.

There is much to dislike about this novel—its bleakness, its tawdriness, its shallowness, its present tense and punctuation. It is painful emotionally, rather too intimate, and the characters can sometimes make themselves hard to like, to say nothing of their half-formed ideas. And yet it cannot be denied that Rooney can write, or that she has written a powerful piece of literature. She has made good use of her considerable talent, to set in aspic certain aspects of this desolate and disconsolate age. What she opts not to evoke from Irish scenery and history is in fact a strength; she describes the contrasts between County Sligo and Dublin, but she could just as easily be writing about the lines dividing Acadiana and New York, or Yorkshire and London.

Rooney opens her book with a quote from Daniel Deronda, but this is as much a study of provincial life as Middlemarch, and though it lacks the latter’s scope, like that book it is a catalogue of disappointments for those unfortunate enough to be exceptional in an unreceptive world. Like Lawrence, she adds to Eliot sex, but she also takes from him a sense of what it is like to leave the dull safety of a close-minded hometown for the promise of the city, then to fail to fit in, but in the process to become sufficiently different to forever alienate oneself from one’s birthplace. To this she adds a sense of pointlessness and co-dependence that has become an unfortunate hallmark of modernity and its relationships, romantic and otherwise, and an insightful examination of the ley lines that lie between tragedy, depression, and abuse.

Lest the references to Eliot leave you anticipating her lusciously long sentences, let me say now that Rooney takes less from Eliot stylistically than she does thematically and technically. But what she lacks in lyricism she makes up for in raw lucid power. Rooney can bring an interaction to life with enviable economy. Even in the relatively light beginning, this can be like receiving the waking blow to the head which Kafka advocates books should do—and he would not be disappointed, as this is a book that stabs and wounds—as Rooney has, like Eliot, the power to set a scene in the space of a few short sentences. Like Lawrence, her dialogue is impressively true to life, and her description of the basest of interior states can sometimes read like Notes from Underground or The End of the Affair.

Given how seriously I take her writing, however hurtful, however hard, it’s a bit of a shock that she has received such a mixed and inept reception, at least among online reviewers. This is a staggering work, and must be reckoned with, whether one likes it, in the end, or not. Like most writers worth reading, it’s not all fun and games. That said, I give it four stars not for any real fault, but because I do feel that it is rather unrelentingly bleak, and that given her skill she could have allowed in just a bit more beauty.

★★★★☆

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