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Book Reviews Why Sally Rooney’s radical Normal People reminds me most of the decidedly unradical Alice Munro

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  • Title: Normal People
  • Author: Sally Rooney
  • Genre: Fiction
  • Publisher: Knopf Canada
  • Pages: 288

There has been a mountain of media coverage of Sally Rooney and her two novels, coverage that inevitably includes (let’s get this out of the way) the assertion that she is “the first great millennial novelist," and also that she’s Irish, and a feminist, and a Marxist. All of which likely gives you an image of the 28-year-old Rooney as something of a radical. Yet the writer whose work most echoes in my mind when I read Rooney is the decidedly unradical Alice Munro. As with Munro, Rooney weaves a whole story out of a collection of moments of intimacy; she builds terrible suspense out of social blunders, small betrayals, waves of self-doubt. She puts small acts of domesticity on centre stage; in the wings lurks darkness.

Rooney made the Man Booker Prize long list last year for her second book, Normal People. As with her first, Conversations with Friends, this is a love story: We follow Marianne and Connell from the time they’re a teenage hookup fraught with embarrassment, through four years of breakups and reunions while they study at Trinity College in Dublin and then venture out into the world. Rooney soon has us convinced that they must end up together, although they’re too dumb to see it.

She narrates the story in the third person, but flips back and forth between a close telling from each of Marianne’s and Connell’s perspectives, and she inhabits them both fully – so that when Connell, the popular athlete, and Marianne, the social outcast, start having sex in their last year of high school and he forbids her to tell anyone at school, then asks a popular girl to the prom hours after Marianne leaves his bed, you hate him. But you also wince on his behalf, because he’s so desperately trying to figure out how to be in the world, and so hyperconscious of the external gaze, that you understand why he cannot possibly have it be public knowledge that he has sex with Marianne and that he cares for her.

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Much has been made of Rooney’s calm statements about her Marxism, and class is one backdrop of this book. Connell and Marianne are first brought together because his mother cleans the “mansion” where Marianne lives with her mother and brother. At various points, he believes she may have ended their relationship because of his inferior social standing; she, with the comfort of the privileged, doesn’t think about it at all.

The only label that Rooney, born in 1991, is given more frequently than the other M-word is “millennial” and her characters have a lack of engagement with ideas of career and ambition and work that may seem alien to older readers. Marianne asks a friend “if she finds it strange, to be paid for her hours at work – to exchange, in other words, blocks of her extremely limited time on this earth for the human invention known as money.” But this isn’t laziness; it’s the clear-eyed reckoning of young people who have grown up in postcrash Ireland and see nothing worth investing in because it all just falls apart anyway.

But what Rooney paints with even greater skill than the hollowness of capitalism is misogyny. Casual, internalized, universal. The book is a conventional heterosexual romance on one level, and a long meditation on submission, desire, gender and self-hatred on another. We begin to learn about the violence Marianne has endured, through sex – her first boyfriend after Connell is a sadist, and she casually confides to Connell, who is horrified, about how the new guy likes to hit and choke her when they’re in bed. Marianne is grappling with all of this; Connell can’t fathom it. “It’s not that I get off on being degraded as such,” she tells him. “I just like to know that I would degrade myself for someone if they wanted me to.” Later, she adds, “You’re not really submitting to someone if you only submit to things you enjoy.”

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When she finds herself socially exiled at Trinity, she accepts it comfortably. When she finds her way back to Connell, the third time, she realizes she gets something else from him – but she’s not sure what it is. “He understood it wasn’t necessary to hurt her: he could let her submit willingly, without violence. This all seemed to happen on the deepest level of her personality. But on what level did it happen to him? Was it just a game, or a favour he was doing her? Did he feel it, the way she did?”

Slowly, Rooney shades in the ominous atmosphere inside Marianne’s family home – her abusive brother and the mother who tells her she deserves it, her dead father who also hit her. The scenes where her brother stalks her are nauseating with menace. But Rooney gives the violence the same or even less weight than she does the emotional conflicts, and by handling it so matter-of-factly, she makes its ubiquity clear.

Through the whole book, Marianne – whose outward confidence and sense of self Connell desperately envies – is reckoning with whether she has any redeeming features, whether she deserves happiness. “Deep down she knows she is a bad person, corrupted, wrong, and all her efforts to be right, to have the right opinions, to say the right things, these efforts only disguise what is buried inside her, the evil part of herself,” Rooney writes. But is that why she wants to debase herself in bed? Is that the only reason a feminist with total certainty of her intellectual superiority might want to submit? None of this is straightforward in Normal People ­­­– sex and power and desire – it’s murky, the way it is to live it.

In spite of the current of darkness that runs through the book, Normal People is weirdly hopeful. Marianne and Connell want to be “better,” to be good people – a desire so quaint as to be novel, and for a reader, a deeply satisfying thing to root for.

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