Last November I went alone to Stockholm. As I trotted along, comically self-satisfied with my independence in this new city, I realised something odd: I was breathing differently. In London, I was used to taking slight, quick breaths without even realising it, whereas the cleanliness of Sweden's air meant I could inhale it deeper into my lungs. It felt so genuinely purifying that I started laughing aloud, gripping my thighs with my fingers to steady myself.
I experienced something comparable to that sensation when I read Irish writer Sally Rooney's revelatory second novel Normal People, out next Tuesday (the 28th of August). A love story that spans four years, Normal People tracks the intense connection between Connell and Marianne, following them from school in the west of Ireland to Trinity College Dublin.
The book provides us with snapshots of their relationship – sometimes months apart – told in present tense and flashback, deftly reflecting one of the novel's most fundamental premises: while time may pass, the people to whom we are most inextricably linked will always snap back to us, whether literally, or in the sense of the imprints they leave on our lives, revealing themselves at unexpected moments.
It is, then, a book about relationships – how often we fuck them up, and how the best ones stay there, like monuments weathering rain, regardless. And as the plot meanders through Marianne and Connell's lives, stopping off at times of personal or shared significance, the fire in Normal People’s gut comes from what Rooney says about, well, people. She has a disarming knack for articulating the complexities of introspection, operating a masterful grip on what she has called the "level of awareness you're trying to incorporate into the narrator’s vocabulary".
Reading the novel can sometimes feel like hearing ideas you have always secretly held about yourself told back to you matter-of-factly, or like having something you've long been reaching for placed into your hands.
It’s this truthfulness which makes Connell and Marianne feel so fully realised. The novel is propelled along by the details of their inner lives – Marianne's submissive nature, treated with kindness and dignity by Connell; Connell’s quietly observant way of seeing the world given space to breathe by Marianne – and its pull and pace comes almost completely from the empathy they generate.
Even the book’s wider comments about concepts like class, illustrated largely through the social disparity between Connell and Marianne (though Rooney also observes Trinity College poshos with a pointed smirk), are more affecting than they might otherwise be, because they are directed through characters we sympathise with. Speaking to Lit Hub about her debut Conversations With Friends late last year, Rooney discussed feminist care ethics and their influence on that novel. "It's about putting the caring relationships between human beings at the centre of an ethical vision," she said. Normal People would suggest that doing so has become intrinsic to her work.
Our unusually deep understanding of the characters' interiority is also what lends Normal People its instances of everyday tragedy. Breakdowns of communication litter the novel – one character too shy and embarrassed to ask for a place to stay, the other convinced she has caused disappointment and disgust during a sexual encounter – and are made all the more emotionally resonant because we see them from both sides. It’s difficult to read this novel and not stop to consider your own misunderstandings and wasted opportunities through its sharp, clear lens, and in actually giving us a way to see our lives, Normal People does something rare and special.
In my now-battered and hard-loved proof copy of the book, Rooney includes an epigram from Daniel Deronda by the Victorian novelist George Eliot. I'm struck by it whenever I see it, not only because of its relevance to the story – the quote describes the ways in which parts of our personalities are only awoken by other people – but because, in lots of ways, Rooney’s writing is not far from Eliot's. Both authors put so much energy into observing what goes unsaid between people, and into expressing in language emotions that we often feel wordlessly. Rooney’s inward-looking formula, therefore, rings with Eliot’s significant influence, offering personal exploration and minute observations (Connell noticing the significance of a pause as Marianne drinks coffee; Marianne’s thoughts about how her pleasure in seeing Connell’s face is always "inflected" with different emotions) that ultimately feel timeless.
Normal People shines because – like my heaving gulps of the Scandinavian oxygen – it is totally exhilarating in its naturalness, as easy as thinking and as real as experiencing. It's easy to tumble through its first 30 pages without feeling like you have so much as blinked, so instantly comfortable and totally intoxicating is Rooney's prose, and her rendering of an enduring love. It is an undeniably important novel about how we feel and how we relate, to each other and to ourselves. Read it and feel grateful and changed afterwards – as though you have learned something worthwhile about yourself.