Indelible Marks and Invisible Threads

In the course of our existence, we meet people who open doors in us. In subtle ways, they cultivate and motivate us. They are sunshine on our bleakest days, bearers of positive energy. These are people we hold in our heart. As time moves forward, we grow and, inevitably, we drift apart. Crevasses form in between but despite the space, we know that they will always form part of us. They might leave us but the stamp they left on us will remain with us, no matter how far we’ve drifted apart.

Sally Rooney’s second novel, Normal People, explores the cast concept of friendship and love through two teenagers, Connell and Marianne. They both attend the same secondary school in  Carricklea, County Sligo, Ireland. Despite sharing many similarities, sea of dichotomy created an artificial and social distance between them. Marianne Sheridan, born with a silver spoon, was introverted. The school geek, she was friendless and the least popular in their school. Connell Waldron, on the other hand, was Marianne’s antithesis. The son of Marianne’s family’s housekeeper, Connell was the archetype of the high school jock – handsome, popular and the star of their school football team.

Born in a small town, their paths are inevitably bound to cross. When it did, it produced fireworks. They were like two puzzle pieces that perfectly fit each other. They forged a relationship that is untouched by the world outside. But just when they thought life would sail smoothly, tensions rose to the surface, disrupting the natural flow of things.  When things got tougher, their paths diverged. On its track are memories of blissful afternoons, sweet but short.

“It was culture as class performance, literature fetishised for its ability to take educated people on false emotional journeys, so that they might afterwards feel superior to the uneducated people whose emotional journeys they liked to read about.” ~ Sally Rooney, Normal People

When Marianne and Connell moved Dublin to study at the Trinity College, Dublin, their lives took a role reversal. The shy and reserved Marianne started to blossom. The usually amiable Connell, on the other, struggled to fit in and find his niche. Once again, their paths converge and all through out their days at the university, they weave in and out of each other’s lives. In the process, they forge an even tighter bond that sheds light on the struggles and insecurities that make them Normal People. 

A character-centric novel, Normal People revolves around and explores the perplexities of first love, and the entanglements of family and friendship. These are the foundations upon which Normal People was built on, thoroughly represented by Marianne and Connell. These are banal themes and subjects prevalent in contemporary literature. With brilliant acuity, Rooney gave this hackneyed storyline a twist that is distinctly her own. What was deceptively a romance story was a story about the invisible threads that connect us with people. Rooney extensively explored how these connections impact our individual journeys and growth.

Normal People, however, is not just the story of Marianne and Connell. Interspersed into the novel’s major themes are the explorations of the subtleties of class, power dynamics, and even domestic violence. If there was one aspect that Rooney captured thoroughly and perfectly, it would be the struggles one encounters when moving and adapting into a new environment. Rooney also drew how the change in environment impact one’s growth and personality.

By relating the story through the points-of-view of Marianne and Connell, the readers are given an intimate peek into the landscape of their minds. Through the inner workings of their minds, the novel grappled with one seminal and relevant theme in – mental health. Subtly woven into the tapestry of the novel are sensitive subjects such as suicidal thoughts, anxiety, and depression. The novel, despite its relatively spare prose, covered a tremendous amount of ground.

“No one can be independent of other people completely, so why not give up the attempt, she thought, go running in the other direction, depend on people for everything, allow them to depend on you, why not.” ~ Sally Rooney, Normal People

Rooney’s writing shone all through out the narrative. She was gifted with the natural Irish talent to write in a poignant and lyrical manner. She has a remarkable writing style that complimented Marianne and Connell’s stories. She uncannily interwove quotidian moments with emotionally charged ones. Despite this richness of her prose, her glaring take on domestic violence and mental health issues was ephemeral rather than visceral. These subjects were handled sloppily.

What weighed down on the novel is the development of the characters. Whilst Rooney wrote about their dynamics in realistic manner, they came out superficial. Rooney continuously reiterated how different they are from their peers – they are intelligent and are politically and socially aware. Yes, they are different and special but, in the end, these unending reminders made them less like actual people and more like superlatives of the creative mind. They were caricatures and showed no growth throughout the course of the story. In layman’s term, there was disconnect between the readers and the primary characters.

Further to this, the secondary characters didn’t help create any impressions at all. They were sketchy that they served no purpose in the story apart from creating more tension and unnecessary drama. Like the central characters, they were two-dimensional and lacked depth. They were mere props to a story that was increasingly developing into a artificial story. Most of the interactions and dialogues also felt insincere and manufactured.

The structure worked well in making the readers privy of the central characters’ innermost thoughts. In the heat of the story, however, their voices were muffled and were difficult to distinguish. There was no natural flow in the transitions; the plot shifts between the past and the present were ill-timed. There was an inconsistency in the free indirect style and unpunctuated dialogue. Rather than stirring the narrative towards an impressionable flow, the freestyle further muddled an already murky plot.

“Her eyes fill up with tears again and she closes them. Even in memory she will find this moment unbearably intense, and she’s aware of this now, while it’s happening. She has never believed herself fit to be loved by any person. But now she has a new life, of which this is the first moment, and even after many years have passed she will still think: Yes, that was it, the beginning of my life.” ~ Sally Rooney, Normal People

Rooney made great blunders which ultimately impaired what could have been an impressionable and timely story. Normal People had a promising context and premise. The lack of character development and growth greatly affected the deeper impressions of the story. Ironically, Normal People is essentially a character-driven narrative. There was a chasm between the reader and the characters that  grew wider as the story developed.

Nonetheless, the novel was not totally bland. It had sparks of brilliance. Rooney’s writing, specially, was simply the centerpiece of this contemporary fiction.

Ratings:

46%

Characters (30%) – 8%
Plot (30%) – 15%
Writing (25%) – 18%
Overall Impact (15%) – 5%

I am a fan of Irish writing, without a doubt. Irish writers just have that natural talent that is indescribable. I found that in Normal People. The writing was simply beautiful. It was just unfortunate that many blunders weighed down on the story. I liked the novel at the start but the characters and I drifted further apart with every chapter. It was also glaring how the characters didn’t grow throughout the story; it left a bitter aftertaste after witnessing all their struggles and challenges.

On the other hand, I liked that Rooney tackled sensitive and dark subjects, albeit ephemerally. I didn’t hate this novel but I didn’t adore it either.

Book Specs

Author: Sally Rooney
Publisher: Hogarth
Publishing Date: 2019
Number of Pages: 273
Genre: Contemporary Fiction, Novel

Synopsis

At school, Connell and Marianne pretend not to know each other. He’s popular and well adjusted, a star of the school football team, while she is lonely, proud and intensely private. But when Connell comes to pick his mother up from her job at Marianne’s house, a strange and indelible connection grows between the two teenagers – one they are determined to conceal.

A year later, they’re both studying at Trinity College in Dublin. Marianne has found her feet in a new social world while Connell hangs at the sidelines, shy and uncertain. Throughout their years at university, Marianne and Connell circle each other, straying toward other people and possibilities but always magnetically, irresistibly drawn back together. And as she veers into self-destruction and he begins to search for meaning elsewhere, each must confront how far they are willing to go to save the other.

About the Author

Sally Rooney was born on February 20, 1991 in Castlbar, County Mayo, Ireland.

The middle child, Rooney studied English at Trinity College, Dublin. In 2011, she was elected as a scholar. She also completed a degree in American Literature at the same institution. In 2013, she was chosen as the top speaker at the European University Debating Championships.

Prior to pursuing a career in writing, Rooney worked in an administrative role for a restaurant. In June 2017, her debut novel, Conversation With Friends, was published. It was a critical success as it was nominated for a score of awards including the 2018 Folio Prize. In September 2018, her second novel, Normal People, was published. It was longlisted for the 2018 Man Booker Prize Award. Normal People was awarded as 2018 Irish Novel of the Year at the Irish Book Awards. It also won the 2019 Costa Book Award for the Novel category.

Rooney has also written a score of short stories, poems and essays which were published in different magazines and publications such as Granta, The New Yorker, and The Dublin Review. Rooney was also named as the 2017 Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year.