Exeter, Devon UK • Jun 18, 2024 • VOL XII

Exeter, Devon UK • [date-today] • VOL XII
Home Arts & Lit Literature of the Decade

Literature of the Decade

Continuing our Print counterparts Literature of the Decade feature, our writers review some of their favourite literature of the last ten years. Imogen Williams reviews Sally Rooney's 'Normal People'.
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Continuing our Print counterparts Literature of the Decade feature, our writers review some of their favourite literature of the last ten years.

Imogen Williams reviews Sally Rooney’s ‘Normal People’.

In August 2018, Sally Rooney published her second stellar novel Normal People, just fifteen months after her highly praised debut Conversations with Friends. If you have not heard of Normal People, you are in a significant minority, with the book arguably being one of the most talked-about books of the decade. The intense on-off friendship-cum-relationship of protagonists Marianne and Connell, so evocatively portrayed by Rooney, has left readers of all ages and genders in awe of her ability to tell a story.

Rooney’s effortlessly tender use of simple sentences and her matter-of-fact style of writing are addictive in her second novel. She builds a subtle, almost unnoticeable suspense with every page as she weaves the lusting protagonists’ emotions together and apart. One chapter beautifully detailed love, comfort and weakness fills the pages, then the next hatred, depression and insecurity prevail. So quickly yet convincingly can Rooney bring her protagonists towards something ‘settled’ just to tear them apart again in a matter of sentences. You are left waiting for this to get old, uninteresting, to fail, but it just never does. 

“Rooney’s effortlessly tender use of simple sentences and her matter-of-fact style of writing are addictive…”

Beginning in County Sligo where teens Marianne and Connell are both academically gifted high school students, Normal Peoplefollows the pair over a four-year period as they navigate the school and university years. They fall in and out of an intense, passionate and wildly tumultuous relationship. A novel of reversals, Connell, the working-class, certainly popular, sporting star of the school, starts out on top. Marianne, who lives in the white mansion where Connell’s mother works as a cleaner, is the outcast at school; strange and withdrawn. They quickly begin a fast-paced and confused relationship, surrounded by secrecy and filled with emotional insecurities and sexual exploration. Roles reverse as they become students at Trinity College, Dublin where Marianne finds her crowd, blossoming from ugly duckling to swan. Connell becomes isolated and depressed in a world of champagne and shooting, his status described by Rooney as “rich-adjacent” given his associations with Marianne. Rooney allows them to betray one another at crucial times, allows them to misfire but largely maintains between them a touchingly comfortable friendship. She beautifully illustrates coming-of-age.

“It goes beyond the heartbreak, beyond the romance and illustrates the power of bravery.”

Rooney characterises Marianne and Connell with extreme prowess, surplus characters coming and going, rarely lasting more than a chapter. But it is Connell who is the stand-out. A well-liked, acutely masculine, sports fiend, he battles disillusionment with his emotions, struggling to cope neither with nor without Marianne. In contrast, Marianne is for the most part, unapologetically herself despite her belief she is ‘unfit to be loved’. Rooney appears at ease describing the sexual encounters between Marianne and Connell; the good, the awkward, the masochistic. Of Marianne’s desires Rooney writes, “He has a terrible sense all of a sudden that he could hit her face, very hard even, and she would just sit there and let him”.

Normal People is a standout novel with a deep-rooted message of hope. It goes beyond the heartbreak, beyond the romance and illustrates the power of bravery. Her characters put reach out to one another, making themselves vulnerable, time and time again. Despite all complications they free one another. They provide their counterpart with a platform with which to present themselves to the world. It is a remarkable work of fiction, destined to be a future classic. 

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