Celtic Junction Arts Review

Review and Reflections of the Works of Sally Rooney

Lily O'Donnell

Sally Rooney – Cambridge 2017″
Photo by Chris Boland / www.chrisboland.com (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Sally Rooney is a Dublin based novelist, originally from the West of Ireland. She graduated from Trinity College, Dublin. She is the writer of Conversations with Friends, which was published in 2017.  Her first novel was a huge success, winning many awards and got the young writer’s name on many 2017 best books of the year lists. A year later, she came out with the novel Normal People which received the same accolades and solidified Rooney as an important voice in Irish Literature. Both novels focus on the lives of young Irish women, completing their degrees at Trinity College. Often the characters struggle with class differences, the impact of overly enmeshed friendships and the guilt and ignorance of privilege. While the books tell very different stories, they exist within the same cultural context and on the same Dublin City Centre streets, vacationing in the same French villas and having the same high brow parties in South Dublin. Rooney displays a distinct overly self-aware, yet ironically completely oblivious voice in her novels. One cannot but help but love and hate the main characters for their flaws are so completely like “Normal People”. They beg the seemingly obvious but ever evolving questions… what is it to be normal, what is it to be crazy, and what is it to know yourself?

"Conversations with Friends" book cover. Sally Rooney books.

Rooney’s first novel Conversations with Friends follows the adventures of best friends, Frances and Bobbi, a Dublin based duo, studying at Trinity and performing spoken word poetry on the weekends. The story follows the pair as they befriend a local journalist and photographer, Melissa, who invites the girls over to her Monkstown home to write a piece on them and their work. At dinner, they meet Nick, Melissa’s husband and the two couples become intertwined. The novel is a thinly veiled psychoanalytic tale of the two college-aged adolescents as they are adopted by an older couple who help pull them into adulthood through experiences, pain and falling in love. 

The story mostly follows Frances, an intelligent but cold young woman. Her and Bobby are overeducated and under experienced. They’re very theoretical, with solid black and white ideals of morality. An affair between Nick and Frances questions much of what they know about the world. Frances is forced to leave her lofty, overly self-aware world to embark on the nuances and complications of true intimacy with another fallible human being. Frances is faced with her own selfishness, melodrama and self-absorption as she puts on a face of apathy to hide her own pain. For her, falling in love brings her into a new world of self-awareness and forces her to understand the complexities of people, beyond theoretical explanations of class, culture and inequality.

The book is filled with scenes of Dublin, the places and the context of these spaces are undeniably important to the story. Frances and Bobby find themselves performing their spoken word in small, hipster Temple Bar cafes late at night. The pair find themselves escaping to Nick and Melissa’s up-scale home in Monkstown. All the characters seem to be constantly entering and leaving Hodges and Figgis to pick up new, good books or to see book readings. The characters remain on the pulse of Irish book releases and the local art scene. The book is an unmistakable story of Irish artists. 

Rooney makes sure to squeeze as much commentary on Irish culture as she can into the story. When Frances is on a tinder date on Westmoreland Street, she fights with her date as he states he loves Yeats. Frances responds, “Yeah. If there’s one thing you can say for fascism, it had some good poets.” Rooney leaves us with little parcels of hilarity, at the mocking, modern attitude towards Irish culture of Bobbi and Frances. The novel is enriched with moments of allusions to Irish culture, through the critical lens of a Uni student. Rooney’s first novel’s cultural contribution to Irish literature cannot be understated. She provides a new and interesting take on cultural taste through a young woman’s lens while still providing us with the same background scenes and same general culture surrounding young Frances. She’s a new mind shaping and changing the scene with her existence in the Irish literary world. 

"Normal People" book cover. Sally Rooney books.

Rooney’s second novel, Normal People, shows a long list of the awards the novel has won on the back. Awards including the British Book Award, The Costa Book Award, The New York Times Notable Book Awards, to name a few. The novel has recently even been made into a Hulu series. The book’s reception certainly put Rooney on the map and the story matches all the hype. The story is a faster read then Conversations with Friends. It’s a quick moving, tear-jerker love story. The story follows Connell and Marianne from their small town in Sligo, where they begin a secret romance. They meet as Connell’s mother cleans Marianne’s house and Connell always waits inside Marianne’s mansion after school to pick up his mom. Marianne was the weird, quiet girl in their school, friendless and sad. Connell and Marianne have strange and enchanting two minute conversations in the time it takes Connell’s mother to finish cleaning up. From there, their lives change forever. 

The story follows the trope of a forbidden romance, two people with massive class differences, along with massively different cultural contexts. Marianne convinces Connell to study English in Trinity after high school, whereas, the traditional route would be for him to go to Galway with all his friends. He goes to Trinity with Marianne where the roles are quickly reversed. Marianne, rich and opinionated, quickly rises to the top of the social ladder in Trinity. Her once unusual and abrasive personality, that was so ridiculed in Sligo, is celebrated by the highly intellectual cliques at Trinity. Whereas, Connell has a hard time making friends, Marianne’s friends make fun of his gold chain and his accent calling him “Argos Chic.” 

The couple struggles to ever truly stay together. Fights, silences and cultural differences always seem to leave them clashing and breaking up. They stay consistently best friends, understanding each other on a level that transcends dialogue. The couple actually almost frustratingly lack communication. Their intimacy is mostly silent, and much of how they feel about the other one is assumed, yet hardly communicated. The book is about the power of people to change your life forever, the effect of a certain personality or a certain person to change the trajectory of your life forever. Marianne and Connell consistently go their own ways, yet stay deeply unhappy and craving the other one wherever they are. Eventually they end up back intertwined together, no matter how complicated it may be. 

 Through the story, we see that Marianne’s family is extremely abusive. Rooney shows us how this pattern of abuse from Marianne’s father, mother and brother appears in all of her relationships. She drifts towards power hungry, abusive and manipulative men. Connell quickly realizes this, seeing how deeply and truly Marianne loves and trusts him. He feels disgusted by the power this gives him, understanding the effects her abusive past has had that make her vulnerable. Connell remains a stable and supportive presence in Marianne’s life. Marianne’s vulnerability and depression is often thrown back in her face by other lovers, telling her she’s insane. Throughout the book, she grapples with the question of insanity, constantly pondering what is truly wrong with her. As readers, we sympathize and understand Marianne as a victim of terrible trauma. However, it’s hard not to sympathize with the constant gaslighting she receives from those around her, having her past pain thrown back in her face, as she constantly falls into toxic love. Connell plays a chance encounter that becomes a beacon of hope, really showing the power of people to individually change who you are forever. It also makes us wonder about the deep pain that everyone is facing and hiding within their lives, hence a pondering about the true definition and connotations of the title Normal People

Relaxing in the Trinity College, Dublin by Giuseppe Milo
Relaxing in the Trinity College, Dublin
Photo credit Giuseppe Milo (CC By 2.0)

In Normal People the story is less illustrative of Dublin culture. However, the pretentiousness and prejudice within Marianne’s Trinity friend group is hilarious, as well as, depressing. Marianne and her friends probably frequented the same parties as Frances and Bobbi in Rooney’s Dublin-Trinity world. The story exemplifies the social and cultural gaps within Irish culture as shown by the culchie/lower class/ uneducated assumptions Connell has to deal with in Dublin and the struggles for the two to feel comfortable in public in Sligo and again in Dublin. Where Marianne forgets her affluence and casually hands Connell two 50 euro notes for a cab home, Connell feels he’ll never be truly understood and accepted by Marianne as they meet while his mother is on her family’s payroll. The class differences still so apparent and relevant in Irish culture dominate and control Marianne and Connell’s relationship. 

Rooney is a new and exciting voice that takes on the persona and realities of being a young, Irish woman today. In Conversations with Friends, she brilliantly paints the story of two students who think they know everything, blind to their ignorance. They get pushed into the light of reality from behind their course readings and theoretical understandings of life. An extra-marital affair and a complex friendship with an older couple forces them to see beyond their narrow scope and understanding of the world. The story is told within the beautiful backdrop of the scholarly and cultured literary world of Dublin. In Normal People, Rooney covers past histories of abuse and trauma. She also brilliantly encapsulates a story of intense and secretive romance, while intertwining a discussion of class differences and prejudices within high brow, intellectual circles. The story is riveting and entertaining, the characters so real and relatable they feel like people we know. Rooney’s future in telling tales that define and encapsulate the realities of young people in Ireland is exciting and looking bright. She consistently sheds new light on age old narratives and understandings through an honest and intimate lens.

Note: These books have been ordered for the Eoin McKiernan Library and will be available for check out.