The hype is deserved, the rumours are true and the Booker snub is scandalous. Sally Rooney’s Normal People is the love story of the twenty-first century; big on ideas, sparse on words, and awash in the sexual and emotional politics of our generation.
Sally Rooney has taken the age-old ‘boy from the wrong side of the tracks meets girl from the right side’ chestnut and turned it on its head by refusing to conform to what the reader expects her protagonists to be like. Connell, the son of a single mother and domestic worker, has a loving family life and is admired by all at school. Marianne, the daughter of the rich family that Connell’s mom keeps house for, is physically and emotionally abused by her mother and brother and excluded at school for being different. One evening, when Connell arrives at Marianne’s house to collect his mom, the two teenagers strike up a conversation in which each finds something deep and elusive in the other. Before long, they’re meeting every day after school to have sex: the toe-curling, emotionally ravishing, one soul inside the other kind of sex that only exists in the movies. This would all be very romantic were it not for the fact that at school, Connell and Marianne do not speak to each other; Connell too mortified to compromise his reputation by associating with Marianne, Marianne too self-effacing to imagine that she deserves better. The relationship comes to an end when Connell asks somebody else to the Debs ball, but unlike the tedious romantic comedies that so many people will no doubt be watching this Thursday, Marianne is not convinced by loving friends to attend the ball anyway. Connell does not see how beautiful she is before realising he was wrong. He doesn’t beg for forgiveness, and get it, and no sonnets are recited in front of classrooms of bored teenagers. Marianne stops attending school and cuts Connell off. When the two meet again months later at university, they pick up where they left off. Then the same thing happens again. And again.
It might seem like I’m blurting out spoilers here, but any halfway intelligent reader knows how Connell and Marianne’s relationship is going to pan out after only a few pages. This doesn’t mean that Rooney is a predictable writer. She simply knows how to keep us rooting for one outcome when we have a pretty good idea what the real one is going to be. She also has a talent for capturing the emotional turmoil of what it means to be a millennial, and this is the core of Normal People’s originality and resonance with so many millennial readers.
For millennials, love stories do not go in straight lines anymore. With the pressure to belong greater than ever, millennials are caught in a world where there is no grey area between like and dislike, no accepted no-man’s land between good and evil, and with sexual politics at fever pitch, having two people in a relationship can seem like too much. Each individual brings their own army of issues and fear and guilt into the bedroom with them, and this has the effect of making millennials feel more isolated during sex, not less. However, the alternative – the idea that one person can entirely control another’s happiness – isn’t much more appealing. The powerlessness that Connell and Marianne feel when they have sex frightens them and leads them to seek comfort in other people; Connell in the arms of normal girls, Marianne with men who take sexual pleasure in degradation, and are only too happy to help convince her that she does not deserve whatever it is that happens when she is with Connell. Both characters spend long periods of time caught in Rooney’s white noise of mental illness and isolation from the outside world, with occasional forays into it that only hurt them both. In the midst of all that hurt, they always find each other again. Their relationship is holy; their sex-lives a form of worship. The real question is what Connell and Marianne are going to do with that discovery.
Normal People is a ravishing tale of the tenderness of love in a world where it too often becomes violent and ugly, but mercifully, the novel stops far short of tedious ‘you complete me’ territory. Connell and Marianne form part of a generation that cannot even say what they feel to a smartphone, and so, they express and experience their deepest feelings through sex. Rooney gets her point across in sparse and beautiful language that captures in few words the joy and the emptiness to be found in the luminous blank screens that we all carry around with us, and the unexpected things that can happen once words have lost all meaning.
Normal People should not just have been longlisted for the Booker. It should have won. And I know, after just one book, that I will be reading Sally Rooney for the rest of my life.