Sally Rooney’s second novel begins with an unlikely romance between two sixth-formers in County Sligo. Connell is a ‘culchie’ from the proverbial wrong side of the tracks, a popular lad who plays centre forward for the school football team. Marianne, by contrast, is friendless and aloof. His mum works as a cleaner for her mum, but they don’t talk about that. Connell plans to go to university in Galway but Marianne persuades him to aim higher and apply to Trinity College Dublin instead. He imagines a new life there with awe and trepidation: ‘He would start going to dinner parties and having conversations about the Greek bailout. He could fuck some weird-looking girls who turn out to be bisexual.’ Connell cruelly dumps Marianne at the end of the school year, but their paths cross again at Trinity, where they settle into an intimate platonic friendship bordering on co-dependency.
At university their roles are reversed. Marianne enjoys a thriving social life whereas Connell finds it hard to fit in with the bourgeois student crowd: ‘his classmates are not like him. It’s easy for them to have opinions, and to express them with confidence. They don’t worry about appearing ignorant or conceited.’ Marianne and Connell may be separated by social class, but their shared provincialism gives them common cause. Rooney’s third-person narrator wryly observes that ‘people in Dublin often mention the west of Ireland in this strange tone of voice, as if it’s a foreign country, but one they consider themselves very knowledgeable about.’ The former lovers support one another through their respective emotional hardships: the suicide of a school friend plunges Connell into a depressive spiral, while Marianne endures an abusive relationship with a racist oaf. It transpires that she has a predilection for sexual masochism and suffered violent domestic abuse at the hands of both her father and her brother.
Formed of eighteen vignettes spanning a four-year period, Normal People is considerably leaner than Rooney’s acclaimed debut, last year’s Conversations with Friends. Her skilfully paced narration creates a sense of space within this compact structure, slowing down time by drawing attention to prevaricatory fumblings and gaps in conversation, whether it’s Marianne rooting around in her handbag to mask an awkward moment or Connell kicking a crushed beer can across a floor during an uncertain lull. Towards the end of a party we find him smoking outside, sloppy drunk, ‘in the process of shredding some low-hanging leaves from a nearby tree’; at a garden party Connell ‘returns to Marianne under the branches and absently pulls at a broad, waxy leaf’. When the going is hard, the plant life gets it.
For those of us who remember this phase of early adulthood as a series of haphazard accidents, experienced passively and with minimal contemporaneous insight, perhaps the only abnormal thing about Normal People’s two principals is their precocious moral literacy. When Connell, who now has a girlfriend, considers kissing Marianne in a moment of weakness, he agonises internally over the possible ramifications: ‘What kind of person would he be if it happened now?’ For these two, coming of age is less about wising up than learning to go easy on themselves. Marianne’s alarming passivity may indeed be the product of psychological scarring – at one point Connell ‘has a terrible sense all of a sudden that he could hit her face, very hard even, and she would just sit there and let him’ – but it is also the very trait that enables her friendship with Connell to flourish with such unconditional intensity. The same might be said of Connell’s self-effacing gallantry, which is at least in part a function of his unworldliness. Love, at its most tender, is a nurturing impulse.
At first blush, this novel’s fixation on moral wholesomeness evokes an atavistic religiosity, a reflexive priggishness redolent of internalised Catholic guilt, but there is more to it. In a secular age, goodness is not an end in itself but a currency in a marketplace of human striving. When you strip it down, this is a story about two people exchanging cultural and emotional capital. Each has something the other lacks: Marianne eases Connell’s entry into a social stratum from which he had been excluded; he in turn gives her a warmth that was missing from her upbringing. This might sound like a somewhat transactional basis for affection, but that doesn’t make it soulless. A world in which life is increasingly shaped by the vagaries of work and itinerancy – both figurative and literal – demands an enlarged conception of romance. In the 21st century, not all love stories will be happily-ever-afters, a point Normal People articulates with subtlety, generosity and grace.