Irish debut author of Conversations with Friends in 2017, Sally Rooney wrote Normal People in 2018 and since then has won many accolades. It won the ‘Best Novel’ at the 2018 Costa Book Awards and was longlisted for 2018 Man Booker Prize. I got to know about this book as it was voted the 2018 Waterstones’ Book of the Year. I have seen window displays for the book and since then, reserved a copy in the local library to get my hands on it. Whenever I was asked what I am currently reading, I got glowing responses about how this book is excellent. Well, backing up the positive reviews for the book wholeheartedly, let me explain why this book is an absolute must-read.
The book starts with two main protagonists — Marianne and Connell. Both study in the same school in County Sligo, a country in Ireland. They are not friends. In fact, Connell’s mother, Lorraine, is a housekeeper for Denise, Marianne’s mother. Plus, Marianne has a reputation for being weird and a loner, unable to make friends of her own at school. On the other hand, Connell is on the football team of the school and is popular with lots of friends. Connell only talks occasionally when he goes over to her place to pick his mother after work. Marianne enjoys his company. As a lonely person who never really is bothered about how people think about her, she enjoys talking to Connell and never spills any of their secrets at school. Something that Connell highly admired, and somehow also exploited that emotion in the process.
They don’t advertise the relationship, but his friends know about it. He doesn’t like public displays, that’s all. Marianne asked him once if he was ‘ashamed’ of her but she was just joking.
At first, I was taken aback by how raw and condensed the emotions are in this coming of age novel. It is frank in its explanation about sex between people and the emotions that get entangled with the actions. It is also an exploration of feeling vulnerable and naked, to readily engage in a commitment of secrecy and build an island of comfort, away from worldly judgements. Both of them swear not to speak about their little secret bonding with anyone at school. Marianne doesn’t care and Connell is too ashamed to accept it openly.
Later, they both get scholarships to study at the Trinity College Dublin. Here, the social circle drastically changes for them. Marianne becomes widely popular and attractive, while Connell struggles to find his place since he is made to feel insecure about his social class amongst the elite students that study with him, constantly bragging to show-off their intelligence and richness. But Marianne doesn’t ignore Connell at any point. In fact, she introduces him to her friends and people around her realise that Connell is in fact, a very important person in her life. But few could understand what she meant for Connell. Both couldn’t indulge in a normal relationship since each one felt damaged in one way or another. They were also afraid to lose their sanctity as friends, hence both were involved in relationships with other people. They couldn’t completely break the emotional dependency they had built over the years while growing up through school and college. As the story progresses, we are introduced to Marianne’s dysfunctional family and their disturbing treatment towards her, making her feel worthless and doubtful about her existence. Connell too, separated from Marianne due to various circumstances, feels extremely depressed due to different factors and only seems to find solace with her.
The writing is unique in its presentation. None of the dialogues in the book have quotation marks and the story moves forward with chapters based on time. This book not only deals with the distress of feeling lonely in chaos of voices but the masks we put on to look normal everyday. To confront feelings with honestly is to get brutally hurt by criticism or ridicule, and with technology, nothing is contained in its isolation. It is also at times painful to read how both suffered in their own prejudices and desires to be with each other, but never had the courage to stick with their feelings. It is somehow easier to get naked and intimate physically than bare it all emotionally. Marianne and Connell had character flaws like normal people, but what makes them unique is their pain is universal. It is interesting to see the word normal in the book change its connotation as the story progresses. Loneliness explored in each of their lives is raw and filled with reflective thoughts.
How strange to feel herself so completely under the control of another person, but also how ordinary. No one can be independent of other people completely, so why not give up the attempt, she thought, go running in the other direction, depending on people for everything, allow them to depend on you, why not. She knows he loves her; she doesn’t wonder about that anymore.
If you are in mood to read some fiction that is bound to stir emotions, pick this book. There is no leaving it unfinished once you begin.