Between the lines

Sally Rooney, Normal People

Faber, 304pp, £14.99, ISBN 9780571347292

reviewed by Rebecca Watson

Near the end of Sally Rooney’s second novel, Normal People, Marianne says to Connell, her on-and-off boyfriend: ‘I don’t find it obvious what you want.’

Said in a tiny voice, this moment – Marianne declaring that she does not intuit what Connell assumes her to – is a turning point. Much of Normal People exists in the unsaid, narratives carved by Marianne and Connell of how the other is feeling and thinking; of how they might act or respond. Assumptions influence their decisions, alter their plans, keep them back, determine the on, off, on, off, on, off of their relationship. I don’t find it obvious what you want is the undertone of the book, the recurring issue: will they translate, will they interpret right, will they finally say clearly just what they want?

Normal People centres on Marianne and Connell’s relationship over four years, starting in January 2011, during their last year of school. For both it is their first significant relationship, and their connection is intense and fraught. It is complicated by petty school mores: Connell is popular, Marianne the stubborn, nerdy outcast. The other sort of class too plays a part, Connell’s mother working as Marianne’s family cleaner. This is the vehicle by which Connell and Marianne grow to know each other. They inhabit each other’s lives in secret, popularity sacred and static. The secrecy solidifies, feeling irreversible. They are stuck within the forensic attention of school under the scrutiny of their peers. Connell takes a more suitable date to Debs (an Irish party for school leavers). Marianne, hurt, ignores Connell, dropping out of school and revising at home. They break off. Starting at Trinity College after summer, their positions soon reverse, Marianne popular, Connell struggling to make friends. They bump into each other at a party – Marianne is at ease, Connell nervous. On. Off. On.

The plot of Normal People could read as frivolous or teenage, but it doesn’t. It’s almost rebellious in its quiet intimacy. The familiarity and depth with which Rooney portrays a singular relationship is bafflingly intense. Both progressively suffer from their own manifestations of mental illness – depression, anxiety, self-loathing. Connell’s obsession with keeping their relationship secret seems more tied to anxiety than to the seduction of shallow popularity. They fear the effect the other has on them. They fear the effect they have on the other. They fear interpreting nuance. How well do they know the other? How well do they read the situation? Rooney takes the question of knowability further: how are Connell and Marianne to recognise the other’s desire, when they cannot fully understand their own?

‘She comes to sit down with him and he touches her cheek. He 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. The idea frightens him so badly that he pulls his chair back and stands up. His hands are shaking. He doesn’t know why he thought about it. Maybe he wants to do it. But it makes him feel sick.’

Rooney examines how we progressively understand our own desire, learning to shut down those ideas that purposelessly rise purely because they can be imagined. A thought flits into Connell’s head - I could hit her! - and in Connell catching and examining it, the thought turns solid. Flitting in, only to rest. Then how to shake it away? Connell does not want to hit Marianne. He is sickened by the idea. But he has the capacity to. He knows she has been hit before. And what authority, what certainty can he rely on to affirm to himself: no, that is not what I want at all. How well can we know another person? The question returns: how well can we even know ourselves?

The detached cleanliness of Rooney’s register is striking, condensing complex emotional ideas into light prose. It ensures, too, that the book’s intensities are delivered without melodrama or insincerity. The detachment is apt. Connell and Marianne detach from each other and themselves. They numb. They return to each other. They thaw. They split apart. They numb. Normal People is oppressive. Fear closes in. Either be ensnared or be apart. Weight lingers without comprehension. Rooney writes:

‘She was attuned to the presence of his body in a microscopic way, as if the ordinary motion of his breathing was powerful enough to make her ill.’

They are each soothed and influenced by the other, but this dependence terrifies. Turns their on to off. Their heads interfere. Both are anxious and depressed amidst the unsaid. And even when all is said – they must prepare for mishearing and misinterpretation. Communication is fallible. Rooney’s prose is light, but she depicts a weight, an unnegotiable fog. In human relationships, you are always one moment away from misunderstanding.