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4 September 2017updated 05 Sep 2017 10:56am

Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends is an Irish social novel for the modern age

An Irish book  with little to say about nationalism or the church is a breakthrough – though that's where the innovation ends.

By Philip Maughan

The key to Sally Rooney’s debut novel is hidden in plain sight. It’s in the title: Conversations with Friends. While on the surface this is a sharp, contemporary take on the bourgeois social novel, the stuff of marriage, betrayal and touchy dinner parties, there are no dramatic set-pieces – no car crashes, no unlocked email accounts, no catching them at it in the library. Instead feelings emerge and are appraised in speech. “He was the first person I had met since Bobbi who made me enjoy conversation, in the same irrational and sensuous way I enjoyed coffee or loud music,” says the narrator, Frances, a 21-year-old performance poet and student who falls in love with a wealthy actor 11 years her senior. Who also happens to be married.

The dynamic is complicated in all sorts of ways. For one, Frances’s last (and only) relationship was with a woman, Bobbi, her anarchist (also wealthy) best friend from school. For another, the actor isn’t everything he appears to be. He’s “handsome”, we’re told, “to an almost off-putting extent.” In fact, by my reckoning Nick is referred to as “handsome” at least 11 further times in the novel, whether pointedly to objectify him or as an editorial oversight is never quite clear.

Despite this tired marker of male impressiveness, not everything is golden for Nick. He has recently emerged from a psychiatric institution. He is passive, jaded, often depressed. By his wife Melissa’s own admission: “I’ve become so used to seeing him as pathetic and even contemptible that I forgot anybody else could love him.”

Not that Frances has it any easier. Throughout the book she endures a litany of woes – with her father, her health, her finances – creating a situation in which nobody can fault her or old sad sack Nick for attempting to squeeze whatever joy they can from their infatuation. It’s possibly the most blameless affair in literature. Even Melissa, the cuckolded wife, more or less agrees. “I once slept with another woman at a literary festival,” she explains to Frances and Bobbi, “then several years later, while Nick was in psychiatric hospital, began an affair with his best friend, which continued even after Nick found out.”

It’s a lot to take in and understandably, Frances struggles with it. She’s new to all this, after all. Hers is the perspective of a Holden Caulfield or Jane Eyre, the narrator from a bildungsroman trying to keep cool after winding up in the realm of Edith Wharton or James Salter. The mid-section of the book – which takes place among the lakes, holiday homes and bounteous picnic spots of northern France – is particularly Salterian, with sprinkles of lyrical Joyce thrown in. “The clouds were green and the stars reminded me of sugar,” Frances thinks. “His heart continued to beat like an excited or miserable clock,” she says of Nick.

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This is another key point: Conversations is an Irish novel that has very little to say about nationalism or the Church. In 1942 the short-story writer Frank O’Connor claimed it would be impossible to write a social novel set in Ireland. In that sense, Rooney has defied the odds.

The language of commerce, so often deployed to analyse power dynamics in relationships – “I didn’t think you’d let someone take advantage of you like that,” says Philip, a friend; “He was exploiting my tender feelings for him,” Frances reflects – proves inadequate when the reality being described becomes so messy and protracted. There is no final verdict, no guilty and innocent, no strong and weak, and it’s in conversation, in the book’s continual flow of dialogue, that the layers of complexity build and shade into grey.

But that’s also where problems emerge: the conversation doesn’t go far enough. The recriminations that pass between Nick and Frances, Frances and Bobbi, Frances and Melissa, wind up feeling pale and repetitive, not quite the zeitgeisty shitstorm we’d begun to expect. Despite the regularity with which we are assured of Frances and Bobbi’s progressive credentials, men are still from Mars; women from Venus.

Take the depiction of Nick: at first, he’s too macho (which is bad); later, he’s weak and effeminate (also bad). He does little more than shrug and agree with the women around him, making him “pathologically submissive” according to his wife, a barb he, of course, accepts. He should probably have come down from his crucifix – for the sake both of those who suffer his company and the vitality of the novel as a whole. But straw men don’t tend to have much life in them. At least he’s handsome.

Conversations with Friends
Sally Rooney
Faber & Faber, 336pp, £14.99

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This article appears in the 30 Aug 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The decline of the American empire