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Tome On The Range

The Deep End: On Sally Rooney's Normal People
Stephanie Sy-Quia , September 2nd, 2018 09:33

At the Ladies' Pond on Hampstead Heath, Stephanie Sy-Quia finds calm in the pages of Sally Rooney's follow up to last year's Conversations with Friends

I am reading this book which is making me ache. The book is Normal People by Sally Rooney and I am reading it in the sunbathing meadow of the Kenwood Ladies’ Pond on Hampstead Heath. This is my favourite place in London. Today it is hot and full of wagging breasts because it is a little feminist enclave, which means that to me it is utopia, even though the magazines of this week have all been screaming that the world is burning. Which it is, but its most immediate manifestation is the breasts in the meadow, uncovered, and my being among them, in a too-big bikini. And although we were all moved by Blue Planet II, we have still filled the meadow with plastic punnets of strawberries and bottles of pop, some of which will inevitably blow away on the breeze. But mixed in with my sense of doom is my joy that all the women have sundresses which I admire, and an array of silver hoops which sway elegantly in their ears, and feel free in this meadow to be naked and to speak amongst themselves.

Sally Rooney is making me ache because I left university two years ago and just turned the inconceivable age of twenty-three and she is articulating what is was like to be at university and how it was not without its difficulties even though I was promised it would be the best time of my life. In fact, the thing that is making me ache the most is the figure of Connell Waldron, the boy, because I am reading about his visit to the university counselling service and filling out the Beck’s Depression Inventory, circling its numbered statements, and I remember doing that. I remember also the kind woman who had a name not unlike Yvonne (as she is known in Rooney’s book), leaning forward on her chair with my recent clipboard in her lap, and asking those questions, and I remember also being aware that I was crying describing all the things that Sally Rooney describes Connell as feeling.

Before I left university, I learned to enjoy it again, and now here I am, becoming a Londoner by the hook or crook necessitated by this tough and expensive city, not necessarily any deep conviction of mine. One day years hence I could wake up and that would be it: I have become a Londoner. But for now I am bumping up against its walls, overwhelmed by the vagueness of the task ahead, which is of course to find something to do with my life. First step: acquire all the trappings of the metropolitan elite, these being: the tote bag of a bookshop or a weekly, a statement haircut, small shirts and wide-legged trousers. All this will be done with self-knowledge (the ultimate marker of our class), until one day we will shed the layer of irony, and become only the things themselves. Those that battle with monsters should take care that they too, do not become monsters.

But I am also aching about Connell because he is the first man whose interiority has truly appealed to me; and whose understanding of sex is what has gripped me in this novel.

I am lucky enough at the moment to be in love with one of my best friends, and he is in love with me too, and I wonder if he sees me and the things we do the same way Connell sees Marianne in the section of the novel where they are sleeping together at college. This passage has a suchness which is almost moving me to tears, here in this meadow, confronted with the bluntness of other breasts.

Perhaps you think I am fixating on the breasts, and indeed, perhaps I am. I have not read Sally Rooney’s first novel but now I will. It is evening now and the women are folding up their towels and blankets and pareos, they are gathering up the punnets, including, for the most virtuous, other people’s, and they are going home. In Normal People, Marianne and Connell are back together but it is not the happy seclusion of earlier in the novel. Instead they are in her room, and though their togethered againness is meant to be happy, the room is said to be smelling like “sweat and stale alcohol”, so we are unsure. (Though then again I have woken in rooms fetid with the night before and the clumsy self I was then, and been my happiest. So perhaps we are not in fact to infer anything from this cited smell.)

You will notice this review is not assessing the quality of Rooney’s novel, not really. Indeed, it is focusing on the characters and how I liked them, and the verisimilitude of the dialogue, which are the things bad reviewers do. And it is true, I query the necessity of framing submissive sexuality within a woman’s childhood abuse, but also wonder if this just makes me a prude, and I question the value of having a female protagonist who gratuitously loses lots of weight; but the bottom line is that Rooney’s novel has made me calmer, on the whole, about my life, and where it is going, and although the world outside the meadow is burning, I walk into it, full of love.

Normal People by Sally Rooney is published by Faber

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