With all the hype around the currently playing tv series, I’m sure that many of you will have had an instant emotional response one way or another, to my choice of book to review this week. Sally Rooney’s book generated both high praise and low disdain just as the tv show seems to be doing and I must admit that although I’ve had the book in my posession for some time, a certain level of hyperbole prevented me from opening it. I was mistaken.
At the time of writing, BBC One is half-way through the series so I promise, no spoilers. The series is faithful to the multi-award winning book for the most part although the endings are not quite the same and I suspect this is to leave the way open for a second series even though Rooney herself has no plans to write one.
As a romance writer myself I am wary of reading within the genre where possible oversaturation leads to formulaic story-lines and flat characterisations. Normal People avoids the trap and refreshes the genre beautifully, tenderly, intelligently. If there is one issue that this old man has with the story, it’s the occasional urge to bash the characters heads together and knock some sense into the pair of them! That however would be grossly unfair and it would destroy the choreography of their journey together.
Connell and Marianne are teenagers in the same small town of Carricklea, County Sligo in the west of Ireland. Their story begins in that time of economic depression following the “Celtic Tiger” boom. Marianne is from a rich family and is intimidating, a loner and outcast in her final year at school and Connell is the son of their cleaner (a young single mother), and a popular star of the school football team. Both are very intelligent and they strike up an awkward but riveting conversation which is the start of their clandestine relationship. Connell hides the relationship from his friends through a sense of shame. Marianne persuades Connell to follow her to Trinity College in Dublin, where most of the rest of the story is set over a four year period. At Trinity their roles are reversed with Marianne finding friends quickly but Connell finds it hard to fit in due to class snobbery. They do reconcile and weave in and out of each other’s lives throughout the university years.
At it’s most simple, this is a highly perceptive, nuanced and emotionally honest tale of two mismatched lovers who share a profound understanding of each other but whose love is tried on the battlefield of class, power and the falsehoods that each one chooses to believe. The story is universally accessible but will I’m sure be held to account by many who for whatever reason choose to distance themselves from the reality of the longing, the depth of the intimacy or the vulnerability of the characters. That said it would be a mistake to think of the relationship as simple. In places it is quite dark and demands compassion from the reader such as in dealing with Connell’s depression and his escape into writing – fellow writers will smile at Rooney’s witty comments here regarding the literary world. Also there is Marianne’s masochistic streak and her attraction to sadistic, bullying characters. I was impressed that the characters did not shy away from these deep personal issues, nor did they make a big deal out of them. Just like two normal people.