There are some books which are so poorly written they make you cringe. There are some books which are so clever that they make you grin in delight; some that make you laugh out loud; some which are so beautifully written you want to sit and read the same sentence over and over again until it’s imprinted onto your soul. Then there are books like ‘Normal People’ – books which, from the outside, don’t seem that special, but which are so visceral and real that they alter your entire worldview. Reading this leaves you a different person when you put it down to when you picked it up.
This is not a happy story. It’s not a sad story, either – it’s life, distilled into under 300 pages of pure emotional turmoil. Marianne and Connell are intimately relatable protagonists – we aren’t all like them, but we know people like them, and it’s so easy to see how people could become them. This is a coming-of-age story unlike anything else I’ve ever read. There’s no huge drama, because life isn’t full of huge dramas: life is full of little dramas, many of which we create ourselves, that pile up and up until they seem like huge, insurmountable obstacles. This reflects that. There are twists and turns that you always see coming, because life is predictable and people behave in predictable ways. It’s completely excruciating in the best way watching Marianne and Connell fall into the traps that everyone falls into, despite the fact that they’re completely avoidable.
Are Marianne and Connell likeable? Yes, and no – they’re people. Normal people, as it says on the cover. Marianne is from a wealthy Irish family near Sligo who don’t like her very much. Her father passed away and her mother is rarely around – and when she is, her interactions with her daughter are strained. Her brother is a bully who considers his sister to be a weirdo. Marianne drifts through life trying to be completely herself, but her apparent confidence masks an attitude of deep self-loathing from a life of never quite being good enough. She’s the slightly different girl at school who everyone looks askance at, never sure if they hate her or admire her.
Connell, in contrast, is the only child of a cleaner – Marianne’s family’s cleaner. His mother had him as a teenager and raised him alone. They’re poor and very much not the sort of family to be associated with – except that Connell is the smartest person in his class and the football teams star centre forward. He’s a nice guy, effortlessly popular, drifting through life on the coattails of that popularity. He knows Marianne because his mum works for hers, but he can’t associate with her in public – Marianne is Not Cool, and without being Cool Connell has nothing.
Their relationship is both inevitable and doomed. It’s the epitome of first love – needlessly dramatic, messy, beautiful in places but hollow where in matters. Reading about it is excruciating but you can’t look away. At times you want to scream at them or just shove the obvious in their faces – but equally, you can remember a time when you were like that, or your friend was like that, and know that it won’t help.
The writing is brilliant – not overly fussy, just poignant and real. There’s no need for lyrical prose or florid descriptions – instead, Rooney perfectly captures humanity with the thoroughness of her characters. It’s a spectacular achievement and deserves all the praise it’s garnered.
Overall, this is a must-read book. It’s not always conventionally enjoyable, but it’s powerful and moving and poignant and captures feelings on paper in a way that few authors are capable of. The resonance lasts long beyond the final page. I don’t hesitate to call this a masterpiece.
Jackie’s thoughts on Normal People can be found here
Published by Faber & Faber
Hardback: 28th August 2018
Paperback: 2nd May 2019