‘Normal People’ by Sally Rooney tells the story of teenagers Marianne Sheridan and Connell Waldron who go to school together in the small rural town of Carricklea in the west of Ireland and later move to Dublin to study at Trinity College in the early 2010s. Marianne is a loner from a well-off family while Connell is popular at school and their romance is kept secret from their classmates. However, Marianne finds friends easily among their privileged contemporaries at university whereas Connell feels alienated, and this sudden reversal in their social status complicates their relationship.
I was a big fan of Rooney’s debut Conversations with Friends which won the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award last year and her second book published at the age of just 27 cements her reputation as one of the most exciting novelists writing today. Rooney writes about young adults from a perspective which is neither patronising nor idealistic. As I noted in my review of ‘Conversations with Friends’, her main strength lies in her ability to explore what has been left unsaid between her characters and the consequences of miscommunication. These themes are further explored in ‘Normal People’ albeit with less focus on the context of social media compared to her debut. This is partly what makes her second novel such a timeless, sometimes even old-fashioned love story despite its millennial generation characters and its setting in a very specific time and place – the aftermath of the financial crash as Ireland’s Celtic Tiger years of economic growth come to an abrupt end.
‘Normal People’ is also a more intimate novel focused almost exclusively on Marianne and Connell while their other social acquaintances are relatively peripheral to the story. However, there are also wider political dimensions to their relationship which are astutely explored and avoid melodrama, such as the class dynamics between Marianne and Connell’s families (his mother Lorraine is employed by Marianne’s family as a cleaner) and certain traumas in Marianne’s life which are alluded to but not made specific.
‘Normal People’ is an exceptionally mature and insightful coming-of-age novel. Its longlisting for this year’s Man Booker Prize has seen Rooney’s work read by a much wider audience although I still believe that the appeal of her writing will resonate the most with female millennials like myself. Nevertheless, from what I know about the other titles, I believe ‘Normal People’ is a very strong contender for the shortlist which will be announced on Thursday 20th September, and after several years of Man Booker Prize winners I haven’t been particularly enthusiastic about, I would love to see it win the most prestigious of literary awards.