by Jennifer Bryce
I have just discovered Sally Rooney. She’s a very gifted writer still in her twenties, whose work has won numerous awards including longlisting in the Booker Prize. Her debut novel, Conversations with Friends, was published in 2017. She writes quickly and lucidly — she wrote 100,000 words of Conversations with Friends in three months.
There are two things that I especially like about Rooney’s writing: she writes about what she knows, the world of young people at school and university (Trinity College, Dublin) in the 2010s and she writes very strong and therefore memorable characters. As Claire Armitstead has said in The Guardian, what Rooney produces is no ‘callow university novel… her characters are inhabitants of the networked society: they communicate by instant messaging, texts and email, but what it means to them is singular’.
Frances, the protagonist in Conversations with Friends is a student at Dublin University and an aspiring writer. She has a close friendship with Bobbi, indeed, in the past they have been sexual partners. But when the story opens they are good friends who perform spoken word together and are hence a part of the Dublin literary scene — and that’s how Frances becomes involved with older married man (in his mid to late thirties), Nick. Frances is still in her twenties, and so many of these experiences are new to her. They are described candidly and vividly.
How many love stories have I read? Rooney’s Normal People is fresh and profound. It could be about love across a social divide — Marianne is from an unhappy upper middle class family and Connell’s mother works as a cleaner for the family — he and Marianne go to the same school. But it is far more than that. It is a love based on understanding and friendship that weathers other sexual partners and so much more. When, at the end of the story, Connell wins a scholarship to the US (they have both been scholarship students at Trinity), Marianne says, “You should go… I’ll always be here. You know that”.
The characters for both of these novels seem to have grown from a short story written by Rooney: Mr Salary. It is published in a Faber chapbook. The story explores a kind of underpinning love — and it is between Sukie, a young student in her early twenties and Nathan, sixteen years older than her, who as an in-law member of the family provides her with accommodation. They kiss passionately on one occasion but other gestures are tender and caring. Sukie says, “My love for him felt so total and so annihilating that it was often impossible for me to see him clearly at all” [page 20].
Although Rooney’s stories may jump around from a character’s recollections to straight narrative, these aspects entwine in a very readable and natural way. And sometimes a choice of word jumps out as particularly apt, such as at the beginning of Mr Salary when Nathan meets Sukie at the airport, Sukie recounts: “My suitcase was ugly and I was trying to carry it with a degree of irony” [page 1].
Rooney’s latest book, Beautiful World, Where Are You, is due out in September this year. I am looking forward to it.