P D Dawson
A Review: Normal People by Sally Rooney
Marianne and Connell are two very different people. One is popular, the other is not, one is said to be good looking, the other admittedly average. Even with these differences, there is a spark between them and a level of comfort that neither can deny. Marianne is happy to be a servant to Connell's feelings, and he is just as keen to keep their affection for one another secret. He fears what would happen to his reputation if all his friends knew he was having sex with the friendless weird girl who lives in the big white mansion.
The story itself moves on in a series of chunks in which Connell doesn't see Marianne. Three months or more can pass at a time, and we often see that significant changes have happened. Connell, who began as the popular one in school, begins to suffer with bouts of depression, while Marianne grows in popularity and social status. This, however, is not the real truth, for she is unhappy in her relationships with others, and continues only to find solace and comfort in Connell, and likewise he in her. With that, you would think they were destined to be together, but the forces that pull them together, often pull them apart again. They are like spinning magnets.
By the time I was nearing halfway through the novel, it suddenly crept up on me just how much I had become invested in the story. The characters are built up with such subtle nuance, that I didn't realise how much they had grown on me. Rooney's razor-sharp insight seems to be the key to this. It is in the minutiae where she weaves her magic, the seemingly meaningless conversations between her characters, the blunt remarks they make to each other, coded with understated sadness and devastating rejection. Between these lines, what Marianne doesn't say, and what Connell doesn't express, eats away at the reader, chipping away at us a little piece at a time, until eventually, nothing matters to us, except that they still have each other, either in friendship or in love.
Normal People is a stunning novel and a remarkable achievement. The magic is in how Rooney creates the illusion of simplicity in her prose, yet somehow imbues complexity and depth into her characters. I can't remember the last time I felt so much empathy or have been left so convinced that a set of fictional characters would carry on living, long after I've closed the book.