Normal People (2018) – Sally Rooney

Title: Normal People
Author: Sally Rooney
Date published: 2018
Publisher: Faber and Faber
Star Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

“You can never really know another person”

A native Dubliner wrote this illuminating piece of literature, and I feel completely honoured and grateful to have been able to read this particular book whilst I was on a three week holiday in Dublin itself. No amount of emphasis can be placed on the benefit of reading a novel in its birthplace. An odd start to this review, but I feel as though I would not have gained the same impression from the story had I read it in say, sunny South Africa. However this is not to say that I would have felt less of Rooney’s work outside of Ireland, it is simply to convey the unique perspective I gained access to as I really ‘heard’ Connell and Marianne’s lilt, and really ‘saw’ their Dublin and their Sligo.

To begin at the beginning, which is a good place to start, it is worth noting that this is a love story. In so many ways it is so typical that one would question the author’s motives in handing her readers such a cliché. This is a book about a quiet and unassuming girl named Marianne from a wealthy family, whose mansion is cleaned regularly by a single mother from the working class side of Carricklea in County Sligo, Ireland. This working mother’s name is Lorraine, and her son Connell goes to the same school as Marianne. Marianne is not considered pretty or popular, and Connell is considered both. One day these two kids will make a connection that will lead them both down a path of intermittent sexual discoveries, depression, anxiety, fetishism, and a little bit of masochism. If this sounds intense and a little daunting I can assure that it is more daunting to feel this way than it is to read about it.

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Marianne and Connell become involved when they are both finishing high school, and when they both end up studying at the prestigious Trinity College in Dublin they begin to drift apart in so many ways, but in other ways they will always be connected. They will crash into each other time and time again, and there is not one moment that the reader does not root for them. They will fall in and out of love with academia, with each other and with other people, but they never seem to be able to fall in love with themselves. As though adrift on a sea of how life ‘should be’ both characters are constantly trying to atone for something that is not always clear. That being said the author has approached the mental health issues, and taboos her main characters encounter with a grace and clarity that is admirable to the point of genius.

Rooney has written a simple tale about two young people whose lives become inexplicably intertwined, and as we the reader observe their lives from afar sometimes bearing witness to Marianne and Connell’s relationship feels like an invasion of privacy. When they’re together the world is excluded, and when they are apart nothing seems to fit together very nicely.  Much like ill-matched jig saw puzzle pieces, our heroes have dreadful social skills, and this is evident in their interactions with the outside world. The reader will not always understand why Marianne makes certain choices, or why Connell fears the world so much, but I believe that is exactly why this novel is a fantastic example of a true classic for the modern age where communication (or the lack thereof) is responsible for so many misunderstandings and fear.

In conclusion we may never know what true love (in the conventional sense) means, but we can experience something real and raw and crazy and beautiful in the love between Marianne Sheridan and Connell Waldron, and that’s just fine, if you can handle it.

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