Read the critical reception for Sally Rooney’s Normal People and you’ll find talk of youth, class, power dynamics, alienation, and love as powerfully told as in the classic novels. All are present in her second novel, but it’s Anne Enright’s review in The Irish Times which speaks of craft, something that looms large over the entirety of Sally Rooney’s work.
Written in close third person perspective—key to Normal People—Rooney’s Connell and Marianne have found in each other a rare thing; understanding without awareness; love without artifice. And it’s the first half of Normal People that offers us this love, one without a clear-cut rationale; one with no scaffold for Marianne and Connell’s experience with each other. We see only glimpses of the wider life they live, leading to a search for context to their living with and apart from each other. I looked for these signs among their world, my world, a world I know, a world I look for reasons for in novels even if I have to close the gap the author leaves for me (which a good author will invariably leave.) The gap Rooney left was vast, one I felt I couldn’t cross. They didn’t exist in the world, as much as they didn’t exist within the novel’s world as ostensible couple. I couldn’t see their love as having any proof of existence outside of abstracts to a reader. It was all of everything to them, and so made of nothing when compared to the emptiness surrounding it.
Towards the end of the first half of the story Connell and Marianne are apart from each other (again) and we see more of their wider world sneak into the story—a world where each others love isn’t the ultimate prize to have and hold. This was the first time I truly felt their love existing. It became a love in relief, cast against and observed by something outside of both protagonists. Marianne is standing in a supermarket, avoiding the stares of her small Sligo town by inspecting yoghurt and hoping to remain anonymous among the groceries, while speaking to a friend on the phone. Marianne and Connell’s story of love (and absence) had gone from abstract to real.
Up until that point, although I could, if I directed myself to, imagine how Marianne and Connell’s lives existed without each other, Rooney’s novel gave me little reason to believe in it. This, perhaps, is Rooney’s greatest use of craft. With the second half of the book, and further examples of the wider world intruding on the beset couple, I was finally able to see their love as real and not so pure as to exist only as a promise from a story. Maybe this is my failing; that I can’t credit the meanings of emotions without a context, but as I accepted their love as more real than useful fiction, as fitting within an order of the world, so too the characters begin to realise it themselves. It’s by this point Connell and Marianne’s existence with each other is being seen by their friends and family. The novel’s world’s seeing them is Connell and Marianne’s accepting of it, is my seeing it. This is a fine cut from Rooney, and puts questions of craft to the fore.
The most important question for me is to what purpose this craft has been put? Maybe Rooney asks for an element of faith in how we address the world. Maybe she asks that we believe in two people’s love, people’s fear and hurt, everyone’s potential misunderstanding, a person’s sexual assault—and brava to Rooney for handling the sexual assault of a man with ferocity— someone’s physical and emotional abuse, possibly just that we believe in ourselves. Yet this is the greatest failing in Normal People. The emotions feeding the characters’ thoughts, the thoughts’ feeding their decisions are often wrong but are rarely in doubt. Everything is experienced, felt, sometimes mulled over, but never questioned or doubted.
This is why Rooney’s third person perspective is key to this story, and why her craft asks questions of the story itself. By cutting their nascent love off from the world, we’re allowed to see it form in purity. Introducing them as a couple to the world, we’re allowed to see it with contrast. Equally, what we’re allowed to see of their interiority is carefully selected, and if we never see a real doubt in their attraction, their feeling for each other, this is a careful stroke from Rooney. Perhaps we’re supposed to feel it in the abstract, without her direction, much as we saw their love as abstract without any context. I somehow doubt this: Rooney has done everything with purpose.
Normal People is an atypical love story told typically. Marianne doubts she can be loved, but rarely doubts her own doubt. The truth that we reach at the end of the story is hard fought for but inevitable. Marianne has been through false loves, but her one love, despite upsets, remains true. It’s a love she’s rejected, run from, put down and mistook for something else, but it was never in doubt. It was never something to be interrogated as both real and unreal; as the possibilities of a falling coin, however weighted by circumstance. The emotion between Marianne and Connell was never to be questioned, rather always true, it just didn’t come with directions on how they should handle it.
Rooney portrays a couple the reader may doubt (and has certainly crafted a story where I was filled with doubt) but this is never reflected in the characters. Unlike their love becoming real in my mind as it becomes real to the world within the novel, the doubt I feel over loves in my life—doubts anyone could feel over any emotion—is never addressed by Rooney. Their world is truth, their experience is truth, and this may very well be the truth of love. For me it’s hard to see anything as unquestionable truth, except for the occasional purposefully crafted romance, and from this the love I’ve read in Normal People is experienced as written; seemingly as fantasy.