Normal People – Sally Rooney
Connell is a super popular athlete at his rural high school outside of Galway. Son of a single mother, he is part of the non-privileged class. Fortunately for him, in his town and environment, the socio-economic background is insignificant, particularly for the star of the football (soccer) team. Connell is also very smart, does well in school, and is university-bound. Marianne, a classmate, comes from a privileged upper-middle-class background, and Connell’s mother works as a cleaning woman for Marianne’s family.
Although this book is set in contemporary Ireland, the attitudes towards income and wealth in rural Galway appear to be those of pre-Celtic Tiger Ireland. The (old) Irish attitude towards class and wealth held that above all, you did not talk about money (having or not having it). Consumerism didn’t exist in an economy where many people felt lucky to be able to stay in Ireland and have a job rather than emigrating to England, or America. We see that once Connell gets to Dublin he finds young people who constantly talk about how much money their parents have. This is post-recession Ireland, and apparently, there are some people have survived and thrived.
In their final year of secondary school, Marianne and Connell get involved. This leads Connell to change his plans to go to university in Galway to going to Trinity College, Dublin. It is here that the class differences between Connell and Marianne push them in different directions. Much of the book is the story of their moving apart and together. The intensity of their relationship was believable even to this reader who is many decades beyond a time when these types of romances were the stuff of everyday life (your own and of course your friends).
Connell decides to study English at Trinity rather than law. One of my favorite parts of the book was Connell’s reaction to a reading by a 30-something visiting writer.
“ By then Connell regretted his decision to attend. Everything about the event was staid and formulaic, sapped of energy. He didn’t know why he had come. He had read the writer’s collection and found it uneven, but sensitive in places, perceptive. Now, he thought, even that effect was spoiled by seeing the writer in this environment, hemmed off from anything spontaneous, reciting aloud from his own book to an audience who’d already read it. The stiffness of this performance made the observations in the book, seem false, separating the writer from the people he wrote about as if he’d observed them only for the benefit of talking about them to Trinity students.”
Later when they all end up in a pub and Connor thinks about “literature fetishized’ for its ability to take educated people on “false emotional journeys” that “allowed them to feel superior to the uneducated people they read about”. What a shrewd indictment.
Rooney currently is the editor of The Stinging Fly a Dublin-based literary magazine “ established in 1997 to seek out, publish and promote the very best new Irish and international writing”. This is her second novel, and both have been praised widely, at times to a level of hype. But I found Rooney to have depth and remarkable insight, and she is a writer I will continue to follow and read.
Revised April 19, 2019
I was privileged to see Sally Rooney in conversation with Lily Meyer, writer, translator, and critic for NPR Books, The Atlantic, and others last night at Politics and Prose in Washington DC. It was brilliant. The novel was published last summer in Ireland and the UK but only has been released in the US (hardcover) April 16, 2019. I was particularly struck when Lily Meyer asked Rooney if this was a socialist novel. It was a fascinating exchange. Rooney said that it wasn’t her intent to write a socialist novel, and she seemed to say that if one sets out to do that, it is likely not to succeed. As I revisited my review written last December, I realized that the class issues were the aspect of the book that talked to me the most. Meyers made another observation – that Rooney often described how her characters were dressed, which is uncommon in contemporary fiction. Clothing, Rooney noted, is often a marker of social class. This relationship between dress and class is complex. I have often noticed that middle and upper-middle-class youth can more easily “afford” to dress in a “raggedy” style, where less affluent young people may have to dress more respectable to be taken seriously as they are disadvantaged by their class. I asked Rooney about efforts to support and promote working-class writers in Ireland as the Irish British writer Kit de Waal has done in the UK https://unbound.com/books/common-people/
Rooney responded that de Waal had recently been in Ireland and there are similar efforts happening there. I will add that The Stinging Fly (https://stingingfly.org/about-us/) is at the forefront of new Irish writing, and as such, is working to support working-class writing.
Rooney at 28 is a writer we are going to hear more from, and I eagerly await her next novel.