Are Connell and Marianne normal people? Marianne certainly isn’t. At school in rural Galway she’s the weird girl, ostracised and excluded, too clever and uppity for her own good. She doesn’t look right, she does gross things; even speaking to her might somehow pass on the taint of unpopularity.
Connell’s the opposite. The handsome son of a single mother, he’s adored by everyone. It’s not that he’s friends with Marianne, exactly. Like his mates he blanks her in school. But his mother cleans her house, and their halting conversations in the kitchen swiftly give way to an intense mutual attraction, part sexual, part intellectual, that will become the centre point of both their lives.
Their shared cleverness is a bond, a bridge over the gulf in social status. Marianne encourages Connell to apply to Trinity College Dublin to read English. But by the time they arrive at Trinity their brief, electrifying affair has ended, and their statuses have abruptly reversed. Now Marianne is a beauty, at home among the privileged surrounds. Suddenly it’s Connell who’s unpopular and alienated, an unworldly loser with a thick Sligo accent, a “milk-drinking culchie” who only slowly realises the students speaking so confidently about books in his classes haven’t actually bothered to read them.
In some ways, Sally Rooney’s magnificent, painful, Man Booker-longlisted second novel, the follow-up to her acclaimed debut Conversations with Friends, is a meditation on power: the way that beauty, intelligence and class are currencies that fluctuate as unpredictably as pounds and dollars. Then again, it’s also about love and violence, about how damage is accrued and repaired.
Time, too. Normal People hurdles forward in increments of months and weeks, passing back and forth between Connell’s and Marianne’s not always convergent perspectives. Each chapter is given a time signature: “three months later”, “two weeks later” and so on. Within these chapters are fluidly accomplished flashbacks, always natural and easy to follow and yet virtuosic in their intricacy, showing how rapidly conditions change in the country of youth. At points of crisis – a broken nose; a fight over champagne glasses; a season of depression – time dilates, slowing unbearably.
Connell worries about money; Marianne struggles with an abusive family. On they go, navigating the difficult terrain of young adulthood together. Anxiety attacks, bereavement, a bitchy friend, break-ups and holiday jobs – for the most part it’s common ground. What’s remarkable is the extraordinary pitch of Rooney’s writing, the way it shimmers with intelligence. Each sentence is measured and unobtrusive, and yet the cumulative effect is a near-unbearable attentiveness to the emotional dimension of human lives, the quick uneasy weather.
It’s also strikingly unlazy writing. All the descriptions stem precisely from a character’s mood. After a disturbing sexual encounter, Marianne registers snowfall “like a ceaseless repetition of the same infinitesimally small mistake”. When Connell travels to Europe, after a scholarship gives him financial licence for the first time, there is a luxurious deepening of detail, an intensification of sensuality. “Cherries hang on the dark-green trees like earrings”, “the air is light with scent, green with chlorophyll”. It’s voluptuous without ever toppling into writerly over-description.
Sex dominates the book, though it’s by no means graphic. The ongoing, apparently unquenchable attraction between Connell and Marianne holds them in orbit despite multiple tensions and misunderstandings. Rooney’s skill at writing about sex is especially marked when she describes Marianne’s desires, and the states her desires send her to. It’s hard to think of another novelist who is so fluent at communicating this secret, internal aspect of sex: the way that a craving for certain acts is also a shortcut to a particular kind of emotional landscape. More than that: how a history of violence creates a need for self-harm, how this can be outgrown, how growth itself requires and is sustained by love, which can be conveyed through bodily acts.
A visiting writer, encountering Connell at a reading and guessing at his literary aspirations (themselves veiled in layers of shame), observes beadily that not fitting in at Trinity, “mightn’t be a bad thing. You could get a first collection out of it.” This is Rooney’s second book set at Trinity, where she herself studied, but it doesn’t feel as if she’s running short on material. Instead, it seems that in this small campus she’s found an equivalent to Henry James’s closed communities, where outsiders must sink or swim on swelling tides of wealth and privilege.
If this is a love story (it is), then it’s a notably mature vision of love, ethical and erotic, valuing kindness over possession, while wise to the impossibility of existing without the care and influence of others. Contemplating her relationship with Connell, Marianne thinks that they “have been two plants sharing the same plot of soil, growing around one another, contorting to make room, taking certain unlikely positions”.
This is very Jamesian, too: the understanding that we exist not as individuals but in a complex network of relationships, some sustaining and others undermining. It’s a thing worth saying, and this is a hell of a way to say it. Rooney is miraculously astute about human relations, the best young novelist – indeed one of the best novelists – I’ve read in years.
Olivia Laing’s latest book is “Crudo” (Picador)
Faber & Faber, 266pp, £14.99
This article appears in the 22 Aug 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Will Labour split?