Evaluating affection in Sally Rooney’s Normal People, the story of our current post-recession movement, and a keenly observed movement in time.
Normal People is your (and not your typical) young-adult novel, set up in Ireland, as opposed to the favoured land of white coming-of-age stories, America. When I first started reading Normal People online, I thought I downloaded the wrong PDF. The prose did not make a lot of sense at first – it was unlike anything I had ever read, much less in a book written about teens.
In a post-John Green world, where disregarding young adult novels have become the mark of intellectual superiority, the Booker Longlist and the many awards Normal People fetched has reignited an opportunity for us to ponder over stories, like that of Marianne and Connell.
A lifelong Marxist, Rooney is particularly outspoken about issues that stir her social conscience. It is set during the 2000s downturn period in Ireland. The pair weave in and out of each other’s lives across their university years, developing an intense bond that brings to light the traumas and insecurities that make them both who they are. There is no big quest in Normal People. The plot feels incidental, a not-so-elaborate set up to let the Rooney interpersonal-insight machine shine.
Casually sharp interpersonal insights seem to roll offhand through their conversations as well as their consciousnesses, dazzling the readers. Even if we cannot picture them, the characters are creatively attuned to every impulse they experience, the words a loud echo of their emotional and physical reactions that analyse the gestures and comments of everyone they encounter. The adventurous writing of Sally Rooney evaluates the notions of shame, social class, vulnerability, popularity and the intersection of art majors and the dichotomy of a generation too lost in the heat stemming from a past full of deceit.
Meaghan O’Connell writes, “Connell and Marianne’s fates may be partially determined by their social class (“A lot of critics have noticed that my books are basically nineteenth-century novels dressed up in contemporary clothing.” Rooney told Lauren Collins of The New Yorker) and the poor economy, but they are also shaped (if not saved) by each other and their shared dynamic. People can change, for better or worse, Rooney argues in this book, especially young people.
In the end, it’s the very influence that Connell and Marianne have over each other that gives each of their lives too much momentum for the traditional marriage plot. Or maybe this is the marriage plot made current: two star-crossed lovers, trading emails over oceans while one of them gets their MFA.
Normal People may not be about being young right now, but better than that, it shows what it is to be young and in love at any time. It may not be absolutely contemporary, but it is a future classic.
Feature Image Credits: New Yorker