‘Capital “P” Personal: a review of Sally Rooney’s “Normal People”’, by Cosima McGrath


Last month, my partner and I filled out a Centrelink form defining the nature of our relationship. I say ‘form’ but really I should say ‘booklet’ — the whole thing was almost twenty pages. Each invasive question had small boxes you could mark for yes or no, and then a blank rectangle where you could add more detail, if you so desired. Do you and the other person share a vehicle? Do you and the other person share meals? Do you have a sexual relationship with the other person? Are you and/or the other person allowed sexual relationships with other people? Are you and the other person viewed as a unit by your friends and family?

As much as I hated having to summarise the way my partner and I live our lives for Centrelink’s archaic idea of relationships, I admit to a certain thrill of…there’s no other way to put it…‘ownership’. There was a kind of pleasure in listing the ways that my partner was my person, and I was his.

In Normal People, the second novel from the Irish literary sensation Sally Rooney, Marianne experiences the pleasure of a sense of ownership. While at a school dance she trembles with the knowledge that Connell, her friend and maybe-boyfriend, will be arriving soon: “Nothing would feel more exhilarating to her at this moment than to say: They’ll be on their way shortly. How much terrifying and bewildering status would accrue to her in this one moment, how destabilising it would be, how destructive.” For Marianne, ownership of Connell affords her a sense of relevance in the world. There is power in dependency.

Is it good to want ownership over another person? To know that you are the last person they called, and they you. To be considered a unit. I want to say no, but then I want to know why it still feels so good. On an emotional level I understand that to be validated feels good, to be deemed worthy of attention/time/love by another person. But, as Marianne says, there is something destabilising in the immense privilege of ownership. Marianne is “pleasurably crushed under the weight of his power over her” and likewise Connell feels “so completely under the control” of Marianne that to depend on her feels like the most natural and ordinary thing in the world. In knowing each other, and owning each other, they are immeasurably changed. They are also broken time and time again as one or the other of them breaches the boundaries of their strange, seductive and fragile partnership.

He's aware that he could have sex with her now if he wanted to...What kind of person would he be if it happened now? Someone very different? Or exactly the same person, himself, with no difference at all.

I didn’t really want to start with a personal anecdote. It seems trite. It is trite. I know I could continue to talk about the time I thought about my partner and thought about ownership. I could talk about how Sally Rooney’s book portrayed things that seemed to perfectly encapsulate my life, my concerns, my thoughts, just as her first novel Conversations with Friends did. I could talk about how I tend to avoid writing because I don’t know how to express myself in a way that hasn’t already been done by much more articulate and talented people, such as Rooney. And I could talk about how I’m more comfortable as an editor than a writer, because I enjoy the sensation of identifying with a character or author. I yearn to connect with fictional characters or intelligent minds far more than I yearn to express myself in words. But it all seems over-done and self-important. Of course we experience literature personally. Of course we find parallels or attempt to understand the narrative through the prism of our own life experiences.

To be honest, I’m bored of the personal. At least in the sense that I don’t want to know about how reading this or that sentence made you think of that time you walked down this street or through that room as the sun rose and thought about this person or that time in your life and how in that moment you understood [insert whatever here]. I’m also bored of myself.

The moment we’re living in is so caught up with the individual and individual wellness, or ‘self-care’, and yet I’ve never felt more ill. I’ve never felt more angry and apathetic and mute and petty and useless, all at the same time. We receive a constant supply of advice from magazines, TV shows and books. Get to know your gut. Minimise those pores. Tone. Strengthen. Condition. Meditate to alleviate anxiety. Colour to alleviate anxiety. Run to alleviate anxiety. Love yourself. Treat yourself. We have plenty of guidance for how to become a healthy person, but what about a good person?

I want to pull focus from the personal. To zoom out and see how each ‘personal’ fits together in a society, and how exactly we can make our lives worthwhile together.

This is the central concern of Normal People, humming away in the background like white noise. What does it mean to be a good person? And how can a good person contribute meaningfully to this messed up world?

Marianne and Connell want their lives to mean something. They want to exercise their social and political conscience beyond simply clicking ‘Going’ to student rallies promoted on Facebook. They want art to mean something; they want a fine artistic sensitivity to equate to a strong moral compass. They want literature to be a force for good rather than a class performance utilised and fetishized by those seeking cultural capital. They want their time and work to be valuable to the many rather than the privileged few. They want to be good people. But for all their best intentions, their sensitivity and empathy, they struggle to be good people on a personal level.

Throughout the novel, Marianne and Connell are constantly negotiating what they are to each other. At their high school in County Sligo, Ireland, they barely speak. They rarely even make eye contact. But after school, a very different relationship plays out. Connell sits with Marianne in her kitchen, waiting for his mum, a cleaner for Marianne’s family, to finish her work. With each interaction — each shared laugh, each kiss, each tentative step towards intimacy — they embed themselves deeper into each other’s lives. They also wound each other. Perceived slights, miscommunications and careless actions slice into their psyche, leaving many scars.

I started with the personal because it is often the easiest way into a story. Yet there are so many other avenues into Normal People. In a way I feel like this book is about too much. Class. Love. Idealism. Capitalism. Mental health. Youth. Sex. Power. Violence. There are so many points of discussion. When it comes down to it though, everything starts with the personal. Normal People touches on some big ideas, ideas with capital letters, but it is the seemingly small, everyday concerns percolating away in the minds of Marianne and Connell, whose perspectives we slide in and out of, that propel the narrative.

At one point in the novel, when Marianne and Connell are at university in Dublin, Marianne says, “I think we’re at that weird age where life can change a lot from small decisions…But you’ve been a very good influence on me overall, like I definitely am a better person now, I think.”

Connell is sceptical. He thinks he has caused Marianne pain. He thinks he has not been as caring, sympathetic or generous as a ‘good person’ would have been in his place. Every small decision he has made haunts him, and he constantly wonders what type of person he is in the process of becoming, as though it is outside of his control. Life is something that is happening to him, while inside he is blank: “He was like a freezer item that had thawed too quickly on the outside and was melting everywhere, while he inside was still frozen solid.”

Both Connell and Marianne have masochistic tendencies. Marianne is a masochist during sex, while Connell is in a masochistic spiral emotionally. Does it make Marianne a bad person when she asks Connell to hit her? Does it make Connell a bad person because he understands, and even enjoys, the “effortless tyranny” he has over Marianne? As they stumble through life, they attempt to reconcile themselves to the idea of goodness as it relates to dependency, intimacy and society.

At first I felt guilty for starting with the personal. I felt I should have started with the big ideas. The more worthy ideas. But, as earnest as this will sound, it is through understanding the personal that we are able to practise empathy and compassion. And isn’t that what great writing like Sally Rooney’s is meant to do? Reach into our minds and hit us with an emotional beat that ripples through our bodies to tell us ‘I’ve felt as you do’.

“You need to get it straight in your mind what you think a good society would look like,” says Marianne. She’s talking about going to college to study English. Connell is berating himself for choosing such a self-indulgent field, but Marianne calls a halt to his self-flagellation: “…if you think people should be able to go to college and get English degrees, you shouldn't feel guilty for doing that yourself, because you have every right to.”

The personal is political. The personal is painful and confusing. Marianne and Connell never find a blueprint for how to be good people. Likewise, the Centrelink form didn’t provide a suitable blueprint for me and my partner. We couldn’t tick a box to define our intimacy and dependency. We couldn’t find the words to describe what we are to each other, just as Marianne and Connell couldn’t find the words for their amorphous partnership. They never pinpoint the best way to live a life with meaning and purpose. But in embracing the personal they are able, in some small way, to finally understand how they can be good together, as a unit.

Cosima McGrath is an editor and writer based in Melbourne. Her work has been published in The Lifted Brow, Stilts, Kill Your Darlings and The Big Issue.