Longlisted for this year’s Booker Prize, Rooney’s portrayal opens a window on a generation with 21st century problems that their parents can’t hope to understand.
The difference in the couple’s social standing is important. Marianne’s mother employs Connell’s as a cleaner, while at school, it is Connell who is in with the in crowd and a star of the football team. Marianne is a social outcast, an oddball with no friends, who reads rather than socialises.
They are intellectual equals but such is Connell’s perceived self-consciousness of what others might think, and Marianne’s lack of self-esteem, their increasingly intense sexual trysts are kept secret from
both their social groups and their families, and they ignore each other in public.
It is the opposite of the casual idea of friends with benefits and instead is a relationship undercut with shame, but also a built on a secrecy which intensifies their feelings.
A denial of Marianne by Connell, who takes another girl to the leaver’s dance, is biblical in its sense of betrayal and leads to her quitting school and refusing contact. “He felt a debilitating shame about the kind of person he’d turned out to be, and he missed the way Marianne had made him feel.”
When both are accepted to study at Trinity College, Dublin their status reverses. Here Connell is the outsider in a world filled with wealthy students, while Marianne fits in better with the fashionable pseudo-intellectual crowd he struggles to understand.
There is humour in Connell’s perception of his fellow students: “He did gradually start to wonder why all their classroom discussions were so abstract and lacking in textual detail, and eventually he realised that most people were not actually doing the reading.”
The pair reconnect variously as acquaintances, friends and lovers over the next few years both on a sexual and sensual level, but also an intellectual one. “He and Marianne are like figure-skaters,” writes Rooney, “improvising their discussions so adeptly and in such perfect synchronisation that it surprises them both. She tosses herself gracefully into the air, and each time, without knowing how... he catches her.”
For all their attunement, these are very young, inexperienced and unsure characters, hobbled by their own personalities and histories in their search for happiness. The narrative leaps forward weeks and months, finding them variously apart, in relationships with other people and playing out their destiny. Marianne in particular is haunted by her abusive family background and finds herself drawn to a series of cruel and unsuitable boyfriends.
Each time, she returns to Connell, whose early treatment of her is never repeated, yet he is frightened of her submissive feelings towards him.
Rooney captures the two protagonists’ inner worlds in minute detail while the other characters are sketchily drawn cyphers of bragging boyfriends, uncaring parents or bullying siblings, giving the impression that Marianne and Connell’s circling of each other, reading each other’s thoughts and understanding each tiny flinch of body language is all that matters in their world.
Marianne is assertive in her political opinions while Connell’s one political act, liking a Facebook post campaigning to rescind the invitation to a neo-Nazi to talk at the college, is “probably the most strident political action he has ever taken in his life.”
Handled less deftly, Marianne and Connell could be exasperating to anyone not of their generation – introspective millennials doing too much thinking and never making a solid decision. By portraying their relationship so poetically, however, in all its heartrending, intimate detail, Rooney’s tale of star-crossed lovers is every bit as moving and tragic as Shakespeare’s. - Kirsty McLuckie
Normal People, by Sally Rooney, Faber & Faber, 288pp, £14.99