:: Article

never quite on

By Imogen Woodberry.

Sally Rooney, Normal People (Faber, 2018)

The plot of Sally Rooney’s Normal People takes as its subject the simple premise of a never-quite-on romance between a boy and girl at school and university. The opening chapters proceed in high school-esque vein, the plotline strongly reminiscent of the classic brat pack movie, Pretty in Pink. Deeply uncool but quirkily intelligent and pretty-when-she-scrubs up Marianne catches the eye of Connell, one of the most handsome and popular boys in school. Romance tentatively blossoms, but, fearing ostricisation from his pals, he takes another girl to the end of year dance, leading to Marianne’s heart-break. Yet when the pair go to study at Trinity College Dublin the popularity stakes are reversed – the stylish and now fashionably literary Marianne has become the darling of debating societies while Connell left is at sea – his sports prowess, Argos-chic clothing and football knowledge counting for nothing in these new, well-heeled circles. But Marianne is forgiving, and their ambiguous quasi-romance continues.

The two are never officially in a relationship and it takes Rooney some dexterous sleight of hand to convey the intensity and duration of an attraction that leads to declarations of love, but never to actual dating. By the end of their first year the two are regularly sleeping with each other, but this arrangement is terminated by a conversation in which each thinks the other is trying to end the liaison. The misunderstanding seemingly results from an adolescent pique that prevents either from clarifying whether a dumping is indeed at hand. At a later point, following another period of sleeping with each other, Marianne believes the relationship won’t be able to continue because Connell has been offered the chance to study in America for a year. Pre-emptively she concludes he will either decide to stay there permanently or will return irredeemably changed.

But there are deeper hints as to why the pair cannot forge a lasting bond. In her previous novel, Conversations with Friends, Rooney briefly explored the effects of an abusive home life on her heroine, a subject that she takes up with greater emphasis here. Marianne’s unhappiness as a teenager appears not to have been the result simply of the social isolation she suffered at school, but from violence experienced at the hands of her father, a tradition that has been taken up by her brother. As she begins to embark on romantic relationships she discovers a taste for sexual violence coupled with a tendency to gravitate towards men for whom she feels little respect.

The narrative is a virtuosic performance, crisp with rarely a word or a sentence out of place. Rooney largely eschews figurative language; there’s an odd briefly worded simile but for the most part the description is succinct and to the point. Peripheral characters are tersely outlined: when Connell acquires a girlfriend the narrator dismisses her with the magisterially laconic characterisation as a ‘nice person,’ willing to take ‘group photos again and again until there’s one everybody is happy with.’ Yet brevity brings problems when personalities are more superficially sketched. Marianne’s own boyfriend is awarded a tripartite hallmark of villainy: he’s a man who not only takes active pleasure in beating her up during sex but also casually insults Asians over the dinner table and, perhaps most culpably, has a banker for a father.

The protagonists of Rooney’s tales are young; Conversations with Friends focused on two girls in their early twenties, while Normal People deal with a boy and a girl at school, taking them through their time at university. These are of course years of pained emotions, when a bad mark, a romantic rejection or the failure of a political cause can appear to be catastrophes from which there is no return. But moments of lightness and pleasure, when they do come by, are also heightened too. The characters here are attractive, frequent artistic and literary circles and have only limited financial worries. The action is communicated through vignettes in which they go to parties, hang with friends, eye up potential love interests or cocoon themselves boyfriends and girlfriends.

Yet the tone of the novel is resolutely earnest. At one point Connell muses anxiously on his enjoyment of Emma in the face of its intellectual frivolity, on holiday, after leaving school, Marianne spends her time reading long articles about Syria and researching the ideological backgrounds of the journalists who wrote them, while over a later summer the pair message each other about the ‘architecture of global surveillance,’ agonising that they are constrained to correspond on the subject through email. When they turn to more personal matters it is with a similar tone of sedulous intellectualism, or at least as rendered by the clinically observational narrative voice:

‘In a series of emails they exchanged recently about their own friendship, Marianne expressed her feelings about Connell mainly in terms of her sustained interest in his opinions and beliefs […] He expressed himself more in terms of identification, his sense of rooting for her […] his ability to perceive and sympathise with her motivations. Marianne thought this had something to do with gender roles.’

Sometimes there’s a cautious suggestion that one of the characters may have laughed, but any actual joke remains firmly off stage. Of Marianne’s best friend Peggy we are told, ‘there’s no limit to what can her brain can do, it can synthesise everything she puts into it, it’s like having a powerful machine.’ This is rather like a Rooney novel: deftly constructed, impressively immersive but slightly chilling in the serious monotone of its emotional register.

Imogen Woodberry is completing a PhD at the Royal College of Art, tracing the intersection of alternative spirituality and politics in art and literature of the interwar era. She is a senior editor at Review 31.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, August 18th, 2018.