The Irish author Sally Rooney was born in 1991 and grew up in Castlebar, a small town in northwest Ireland. She studied English Literature at Trinity College, Dublin where she also excelled on the debating team. Rooney published her first book Conversations with Friends in 2017 at the age of twenty-seven. It follows a pair of female college friends, Frances and Bobbi, former lovers who become involved with a married couple in their thirties. The book was a phenomenal success.
mundane yet dramatic
At the same time as writing her debut, Rooney was composing scenes for a second book that was published in 2018. Normal People originated in a short story in which one of the characters, Connell, gives the other, Marianne, a lift to the dentist to have a wisdom tooth taken out. While this mundane yet potentially dramatic car trip is not included in the novel, it inspired a dialogue that referred to past situations that did become scenes in the book.
Normal People traces the evolution of an on-off relationship between Marianne and Connell over a four-year period. Both are intelligent teenagers who attend the same secondary school in a small rural town in County Sligo in northwestern Ireland. There, however, their similarities end. While Connell is a popular, handsome young man from a working-class background with a supportive single mother who had him when she was still a teenager. Marianne is an unpopular and intimidating young woman from a wealthy yet troubled home. Both go on to study in the elite Trinity College, Dublin, where their relationship in some form continues as they individually adjust, or misadjust, to the new ‘sophisticated’ big-city setting.
In precise, perceptive prose, Rooney shows how her characters are challenged and transformed by contemporary social situations and intimate relationships. Gender and class are among the many forces that shape the characters’ sense of identity and the way they relate to other people. In a presentation for her book in London, Rooney was asked to say more:
Sally Rooney (Irish accent): I think that class is the structuring principle of our social life. I try to observe the effects of those broad systems, like class, like gender, on the small-scale interactions between the characters, observing those principles in action but not necessarily making any conclusions about them.
WHY BE NORMAL?
Rooney is interested in the banal details of life. Her characters’ experiences, actually very normal, affect them in profound and personal ways. As the title of the novel suggests, normality is subjective, as the author explains.
Sally Rooney: The two main characters have very different relationships to the idea of normality. Marianne feels totally alienated from the idea of normality. Sometimes she seems to feel like she’s a little bit better than normal people sometimes she actually thinks she’s a lot worse than normal people. Connell, I think, at various points in the novel just desperately wants to attain what he sees as the status of normality, that’s like what he aspires to, and when he falls short of it he becomes very anxious.
OUT OF CONTROL
The characters attend university in Dublin. The experience is liberating for Marianne but places Connell outside his comfort zone. Loss of control is a key theme in the book, says Rooney.
Sally Rooney: I want to push my characters into situations that they feel uncomfortable in or that they feel that the boundaries of their control over the situation are being tested. One of the ways that I do this is through sexual desire, so my characters feel that they lose control of themselves, and of their relationships and of their social positions. And then the other way that I do it is through observing what it feels like for them to experience pain, suffering and illness that they have no control over; sometimes this takes the form of mental illness sometimes it’s physical illness.
Rooney has been called ‘the first great millennial novelist’ because of the way she incorporates communication via email and messaging as part of daily life. However, it is not her aim to make statements about millennial lifestyle, says Rooney, but to show how it feels for an individual to be caught in the matrix of different operations of power.
Sally Rooney: They become who they are through their interactions with other people. I try to write in a way that recognises the myths, the stories that we tell ourselves about our own individual identities and how those stories don’t always match up with the way that we feel and the way that we live our everyday lives. I’m not really interested in the individual ... I’m much more interested in coming up with an interesting relationship and then allowing that relationship to change the people who are participating in it.
THE AGE OF AMBIGUITY
We live in a cultural moment where certainties around relationship forms have deteriorated, Rooney argues. The question of how we can be together is a fundamental one.
Sally Rooney: That is the dominant question: how can people be together? There’s a shared acknowledgement that relationship forms of the past were not necessarily for everyone. Not that they’re intrinsically repressive... but that the coercive aspect of them was socially repressive that everyone was forced to participate in relationship forms that were not actually suited for everyone. And so let’s say we do away with all those repressive relationship forms of the past, what do we replace them with?