'Normal People' by Sally Rooney (published by Faber & Faber)
I'm about to become the most unloved person in the UK. The TV version of Normal People
opens with a scene in which Marianne walks out of school after an altercation with her would-be teacher. Well here I am raising my hand and saying I'm walking out on Normal People
. The level of praise this novel has received – not to mention the even greater enthusiasm for the TV version – is beyond belief. I can remember anything like it. 'The best novel published this year.' 'Sally Rooney is a treasure.' 'Magnificent… Rooney is the best young novelist – indeed one of the best novelists I've read in years.'
Sally Rooney is 29 years old and this is her second novel. On Monday 4 May, Woman's Hour
featured a lengthy discussion of both novel and TV series. One of the participants was another woman novelist who began by admitting she was less than happy about the scale of attention being paid to the Rooney book – but soon she was joining in the usual level of fulsome praise. In fact, I suspect that a great many other novelists – including those with established reputations – will have been wondering what they have to do to gain such amazing publicity.
Amazing indeed. The kind of media attention Normal People
has received is perfectly illustrated by its treatment in The Guardian
. On 25 April, the paper carried a lengthy article headed 'Normal People The delicate art of filming very intimate sex scenes', and opening, 'It's easy to forget just how much sex there is in Sally Rooney's Normal People
'. The article then goes on to describe in detail how the makers of the TV version had employed a new kind of expert called an 'intimacy coordinator' who, in these post-#MeToo times, makes sure actors are comfortable while filming sex scenes. The expert in question – one Ita O'Brien – ends by telling us that the sex in Normal People
'isn't just there to show us sex – those scenes chart the delicacy, the beauty, the openness of this incredible, something-other relationship. It was crucial for me to honour Sally's writing. There is nothing gratuitous. But there is also a lot of
sex'. I particularly like that 'incredible, something-other relationship'.
Next on 27 April, The Guardian
published a five-star review of the BBC Three version of Normal People
by Lucy Mangan, headed 'Highs and lows of young love burst off the page in stunning adaptation of Rooney's novel'. Mangan begins by conceding that the book has its detractors but 'to a certain demographic and sensibility' it has become 'tantamount almost to a sacred text'. But she goes on that it doesn't matter, because the adaptation 'is near-perfect from whichever direction you come at it... It's a triumph in every way, from acting and direction to script… It's a beautiful, hugely beautiful thing'.
A few days later, on 2 May, The Guardian
returns to Normal People
– this time, would you believe, on its editorial page. Yet again, both paper and screen versions are praised to the skies. The screen version 'is set to become a television drama classic. Writing, casting, acting, direction: all are pin sharp'. Rooney's 'sympathetic portrayal of the dilemmas of youth feels particularly apt in our divided times'.
Sally Rooney herself remains silent over this barrage of praise but she must sometimes ask herself can this be really happening. And still The Guardian
is not finished. The very next day, 3 May, Barbara Ellen reviews the opening episodes of Normal People
on BBC1, and again, despite the odd reservation, the same superlatives are trotted out. Normal People
'emerged as a naturalistic masterclass in emotional depth and cerebral elegance'.
Surely this is the end? Well yes, except that on 5 May, The Guardian's
would-be satiric column 'Pass notes' focuses on the cheap silver chain Connell wears around his neck in all the bed scenes, and which has gone viral on social media.
coverage of Normal People
no doubt simply reflects a general enthusiasm for both versions of the work. I'm constantly being told by the media that it is what everyone is talking about. Well, aware of its critical success, I began reading Normal People
about a month ago. At first all went well. I liked the sprightliness of the writing and dialogue. There was an attractive liveliness about the language and expression. I looked forward to reading on.
But then something began to go wrong. Nothing was happening. The blossoming affair between the teenagers Marianne and Connell was the only subject. Nothing else was of importance. Soon the youngsters are students at Trinity College Dublin, but nothing else has changed. Their relationship is all that counts. By now it is totally clear what Normal People
is about: the on-off, off-on relationship between two characters over a period of four years. However, when off, we hear nothing about what either character is doing. In other words, the structure of the book underlines its exclusive focus on the affair. Anything or everything could have happened in the outside world in the intervening periods but we would be none the wiser.
Now, I recognise that what I am implying are faults of narrowness and limitation will be seen by admirers of the book as its greatest strength: its following through of every exacting detail of all the complexities of a loving but conflicting and conflicted relationship, its registering of every nuance and depth of feeling on the swings and roundabouts of that single relationship. What happened in my reading is that I began not to care enough. Halfway through, I was really struggling. Did it really matter whether Marianne and Connell were together or not? The sense of repetitiveness was becoming too strong. I almost gave up but managed to go on in the hope that something new would happen. My problem is just that in the end nothing did.
In Lucy Mangan's review, she wrote of 'the endless parsing of every action that dominates the book'. 'Parsing' is a word that brilliantly suggests the determining literary mode of the novel. It suggests exactly the nature of the analysis in question, but it is its 'endlessness' that becomes unexciting.
Interestingly, Mangan goes on to suggest that such a literary mode can only be told and not shown. So how can a television version succeed? Her answer is that it lies in the brilliant acting of the two leads whose every moment of togetherness – every look and gesture – defines their inner nature and persuade us of its sympathetic reality. She may well be right. Having watched the early episodes of the TV version, I'm persuaded to continue doing so.
Let me end by indicating other areas of Normal People
that strike me as at least minor weaknesses. One of the participants in the Woman's Hour
discussion I mentioned above was a woman with two teenage daughters with whom she'd watched the television version. As this was Woman's Hour
, I'd been expecting some reservations might come up. It's possible to be slightly uneasy about the fact that such action as there is in Normal People
exists in a kind of moral vacuum. Very hesitantly, the lady with the daughters raised the issue of consent. Could that not have been given more prominence? I think she was right to raise the question.
I'm sure that Sally Rooney would argue that a writer has to represent reality as she sees it, and not necessarily in a judgemental light. But readers, including young readers, can be influenced by what they read. In the world of Normal People,
the male gaze remains unchallenged. The boys at Marianne's and Connell's local school talk and joke endlessly about who is scoring with whom – and are ready to discuss the protocol of posting and exchanging naked pictures of their girlfriends.
But the consent issue has an even more problematic presence. Marianne turns out to have a strongly masochistic streak. In bed with Connell, she wants him to hit her. All we learn of her supposed year of study in Sweden concerns her relationship with a man called Lukas which involves a so-called game in which he does gruesome things to her – abusing her, choking her, tieing her up – while filming what is going on. More than once she talks of letting men do whatever they want with her body. In all the chorus of praise for the novel, this problematic aspect of it is barely touched upon.
The mention of Sweden brings up my final point of criticism. Sally Rooney is regularly identified as an Irish novelist. Normal People
is largely set in Sligo in the north-west of Ireland and Ireland's capital city. But Dublin and Sligo, like Irishness in general, have no real presence in the novel. Its protagonists are intelligent and both are high-scoring students. Connell plans to study law at the University of Galway – an Irish national university. But when Marianne tells him he should study English at Trinity College Dublin, he casually agrees. It seems he doesn't know or doesn't care that Trinity is the Oxbridge university of Ireland. Subsequently, Connell does admit he feels out of place at Trinity, but the contrasting societies of rural Sligo and urban Dublin remains an undeveloped theme.
In its editorial encomium of Normal People
, The Guardian
suggests that its 'locations in Sligo, Dublin, Italy and Sweden are not the least of its pleasures'. Well, this may turn out to be true of the television version, but the novel is quite another matter. The complete absence of a sense of place is just another consequence of the novel's unrelenting focus on a single relationship. Is the title Normal People
a deliberate, confrontational challenge? Or does it carry a hint of irony? My version would be Normal People?