In 2018, Sally Rooney’s second novel, “Normal People,” was published to widespread acclaim in the UK and her native Ireland, winning several major awards there and being longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. The book is out in the United States this week, and while it remains to be seen whether Americans will react with the same ardor as overseas audiences, “Normal People” is a tremendously fulfilling novel by a writer with extraordinary talent.
This is not complex metafiction that is tackling intractable problems; it is a love story, between Connell and Marianne. His mom works as a cleaner for her family. They’re the smartest kids in school; he’s athletic, handsome and popular, and she’s not. They get together in their fifth year (senior year at a U.S. high school) and decide to attend Trinity College in Dublin together. The novel checks in on them every few months — sometimes they’re together, sometimes they’re not, but no matter what, they can’t leave each other alone.
The story may be simple on its face, but through this framework, Rooney looks at social and economic divides, the effects of domestic violence, power dynamics in relationships, depression, desire and much more.
Rooney’s writing is a marvel, seemingly so casual and uncrafted that it appears almost elemental. She avoids 50-cent words and lengthy sentences that meander down the page. She just reveals things, one by one, cleanly and without artifice. There is zero authorial judgment, but her characters judge themselves. Her voice is almost gentle, but her characters are intensely emotional. She doesn’t use quotation marks, so dialogue and description all feel like one conversation.
Honestly, the best way to experience Rooney’s writing is to stop reading my attempt to reveal its magic and to go read her for yourself.