James Gault reviews Normal People by Sally Rooney
Normal People is a truly great book. It’s dressed up as a romantic novel but do not be fooled. When you remove the flashy ribbon and the colourful wrapping paper and open the box, it contains something as dark and bleak as dried peat from the Irish countryside.
It is almost impossible to take ‘normal’ people and mould them into interesting literary characters, so thankfully Connor and Marianne in this book are the antithesis of ordinary. They each have their own deeply-rooted flaws that turn their romance into a tragic love story on a par with ‘Romeo and Juliet’. These are two gripping protagonists who grab our attention, our pity and our support from page one until the final sentence.
The author’s ultimate accomplishment in this work is the way she understates important psychological themes, like bullying, abuse and self-loathing, and by making light of them, enhances their significance. The book identifies good and bad people; the bad being those who undermine the worth of others to bolster their own egos, while the good are their victims.
In a way, it’s an adolescents’ book. The characters are still fixated on that phase of Erikson’s psychosocial theory where concerns of identity and friendships pre-dominate. It’s the inability to resolve these issues that hinders the two main characters from finding the love and intimacy that should follow in the next stage of their lives. It’s what I suppose is called in literary terms ‘rites of passage’, with the twist being that the passage is blocked. This reader constantly found himself screaming at them: for God’s sake, BE YOURSELVES, don’t worry about what others think. It’s an absorbing story.
Although a Man Booker nomination, this is not a pretentious or clever book. Instead it is a masterpiece of simple storytelling. The chronological order of events is more or less respected, the language totally accessible and the narrative style clear and direct. It’s an easy-to read page turner, accessible to lovers of simple love stories as much as to those who look for deep psychological themes and moral messages. The book is brought to life by the author’s masterly ability to plumb the depths of her characters’ thoughts and behaviour and evoke our sympathy, and sometimes also our criticism.