Normal People – Review

Whatever there is between him and Marianne, nothing good has ever come of it. It has only ever caused confusion and misery for everyone.

You don’t say…

Normal People has won numerous awards, been nominated for more, and has received rave reviews. There will be a TV series based on it coming out in 2020. It has been called ‘a future classic’ by The Guardian, and ‘the best novel published this year’ by The Times.

I have absolutely no idea why.

Normal People follows the on-again-off-again relationship of Connell and Marianne from their high school years to university and beyond. I say a relationship, but they never actually seem to be together. It’s more a case of they admit they like each other, they have sex, they can’t tell anyone, they feel they’re too different to make it as a couple, they break up, they’re seeing other people, they’re sad, being a twenty-something is so difficult, they have sex again… repeat for two hundred and sixty six pages and that pretty accurately sums up the book. I considered giving up only a few pages in, when Marianne says this about watching Connell play in a football match: ‘It occurred to Marianne how much she wanted to see him having sex with someone; it didn’t have to be her, it could be anybody. It would be beautiful just to watch him’. But I persevered, if only to see where the multi-award winning writing came in. Instead, all I found was a toxic relationship, or lack thereof, or who even cares honestly, with one-dimensional characters, a non-existent plot, wooden dialogue and confusing chronology.

We were never together.
You were seeing each other, I thought.
Casually, he replied.
Young people these days. I can’t get my head around your relationships. […] When I was in school, she said, either you were going out with someone or you weren’t.

It concerns me slightly that I identify more with the mother of one of our protagonists than the characters who are my own age, though I realise that saying that makes me sound pretentious. But that’s all the Connell and Marianne seem to do, apart from navel-gazing, never communicating clearly and constantly questioning their friendship/relationship/whatever this is. Not only are the pair of them not relatable or particularly likeable, but Connell is incredibly possessive of Marianne, to the point where he talks about her like a piece of meat – ‘Her body is just an item of property, and though it has been handed around and misused in various ways, it has somehow always belonged to him, and she feels like returning it to him now’ – and Marianne, apart from all her other problems, seems perfectly content to be treated that way – ‘The barman looks frankly at her breasts while she’s talking. Marianne had no idea men really did such things outside of films and TV, and the experience gives her a little thrill of femininity’. She is also very possessive, crying uncontrollably when Connell tells her he has been seeing someone else, despite the fact she has had a number of boyfriends herself and their relationship has never been clearly defined – ‘In the time they’ve been friends he had never had a girlfriend. She’s never even given much thought to the idea that he might want one’. They’re both ridiculous, self-absorbed and ultimately horrible people, and I really don’t understand why their story took over two hundred pages to tell.

This being said, the secondary characters aren’t any better, barely fleshed out at all apart from a name and a couple of distinguishing features, such as their hair colour or clothes they’re wearing on one particular occasion. Rooney’s style focusses a great deal on minute, precise details of mundane tasks, from washing dishes to making a cup of tea, with simple sentences and a weighty, deadpan style. This is not literary or ‘astonishing’, as The Independent called it. This is dull, dull, dull.

Marianne goes inside and comes back out again with another bottle of sparkling wine, and one bottle of red. Niall starts unwrapping the wire on the first bottle and Marianne hands Connell a corkscrew. Peggy starts clearing people’s plates. Connell unpeels the foil from the top of a bottle as Jamie leans over and says something to Marianne. He sinks the screw into the cork and twists it downwards. Peggy takes his plate away and stacks it with the others.

Although the simplistic prose makes the novel easy to read – I read it in just a few hours – that does not make it a satisfying read. Not only is the vocabulary simplistic but alternating points of view are combined with a confusing authorial presence, the free style and lack of punctuation in the dialogue means that characters are difficult to differentiate from one another, and the tense shifts from the past to the present constantly, for no apparent reason. This sometimes happens within a paragraph. At one moment its ‘Marianne says’, and a couple of sentences later its ‘Marianne said’ – and this confusion happens with the chronology too. In one paragraph we’re in the present, then we’re in the past for a couple of paragraphs before being back in the present again. At one point early in the novel Connell is ‘sloppy drunk but hypocritically disgusted by the drunkenness of everyone around him’ – and, to me, that paints a fairly accurate picture of this book. Its a sloppy mess that thinks of itself as high art, as being above other books when, in reality, its nothing special.

Normal People: a boring title for a boring book. If this is normality, I don’t want any part of it.

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