Book review: “Normal People” by Sally Rooney

I’m travelling to Dublin on the ferry from Holyhead, north Wales as I write this, making our annual summer visit to see family and friends. I love Dublin and think of it as a second home, having visited the place several times a year for about two decades now. I haven’t seen all the ‘sights’, although Dublin Zoo, the art gallery, Powerscourt, and the Natural History Museum have all been well and truly ‘done’! When we visit we seem to spend much of our time just hanging out, visiting people, sharing meals, etc. For me, it’s only when you do that, after visiting a place so many times that you really get to the heart of it.

Normal People imgIt seems appropriate that I should be posting a review of Normal People this week, a book so very much about Ireland, the challenges and contradictions at the heart of a nation that has transformed itself in recent years. It is not just about Ireland, but about what it means to be young in Ireland and about class. It is also about identity and, in common with some of the issues faced in the UK and many other societies I am sure, the draw away from regional towns and cities, towards a centre, a capital, where there is perceived to be more opportunity, and what that means both for the individual and for society in the wider sense.

 Connell and Marianne are two teenagers attending the same high school in Carricklea in the west of Ireland. Both are very bright and hopes about their future prospects are high, but that is where the similarities end; their lives couldn’t be more different. Connell is the much-loved only child of a young single Mum. The live together in a small house and Connell’s mother cleans for Marianne’s family. Although academically a high achiever, Connell still manages to be popular and admired. Marianne is much more of a loner and lives with her working Mum and brother (a threatening figure who becomes increasingly violent towards her). She is remote from her family, not well-liked at school, and has a spiky personality.

Despite their differences, Connell and Marianne develop a closeness which soon blossoms into an intense and sexual relationship. The author portrays skilfully the subtle differences in their perspectives, which will at times lead to difficulties of communication and understanding throughout their young lives and the ebb and flow of their relationship.

The pair both end up with outstanding exam results which means that both secure a place at the prestigious Trinity College, Dublin. We follow them to college and here their positions are reversed – it is Marianne now who finds her ‘tribe’ amongst the affluent, the elite, the middle classes, and Connell who struggles to feel at home, whose financial and social background contrasts so markedly with that of his peers.

Despite this, Connell and Marianne continue to have an on-off relationship for the duration of their university careers and beyond. At times their relationship is passionate and sexual, at others it is more platonic, mutually protective. But always it is intense, even where there is little contact between them, such as the period Marianne spends on a Scandinavian scholarship with the abusive artist she has for a boyfriend at the time.

It is a fascinating and compelling book, part elegiac romance, part social commentary, where there is very little in the way of plot, but an abundance of humanity that is acutely observed and intimately drawn. The book has rightly earned its young author widespread plaudits and praise and was shortlisted for this year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction. (The winner, An American Marriage by Tayari Jones, which I reviewed on here recently, was a worthy victor but I don’t envy the judges having to choose between these two outstanding novels.)

Normal People is a beautiful, clever book that will at times break your heart and at other times lift it, and I heartily recommend it. The only pity is that it’s relatively short!

Normal People has been widely read and reviewed – what did you think of it?

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Book review: “Norwegian Wood” & “The Strange Library” by Haruki Murakami

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Gorgeous covers

Murakami is a giant of Japanese literature, and it was Norwegian Wood that sealed his international fame. Prior to its publication (in Japan in 1987) his reputation and readership were more modest, but when he became internationally famous with this book, he fled the country and eschewed all publicity (oh for that luxury!). I had read nothing by Murakami before this although a friend told me (when I’d only just started it) that Norwegian Wood was his favourite book of all time and after reading he went out and got hold of everything else Murakami had written.

It’s a book that really defies description. To say it’s a love story (which it is) does not do justice to the complex interweaving of themes, the darkness, the painterly portrayal of intimate relationships and the forensic examination of the dilemmas of youth and coming of age.

Toru Watanabe is on a plane at the age of 37, about to land at Hamburg airport, when the song Norwegian Wood by The Beatles is played on the aircraft’s PA system. It takes him immediately back to his youth, when he was at university in 1969. His girlfriend at that time was Naoko, a fragile young woman with whom he used to walk miles around Tokyo. Naoko was, previously, the girlfriend of his best friend Kizuki, who committed suicide. Thus the scene is set that this novel is going to explore some challenging themes.

Naoko and Toru become lovers, but their relationship stalls when Naoko is admitted to long-term psychiatric care for severe mental health issues. Toru remains loyal to Naoko, visits her occasionally at the special hospital where she lives, some distance from Tokyo, and also strikes up a friendship with Naoko’s roommate Reiko, who, because of the very close relationship she has with Naoko, appears to know everything about Toru. A further character then enters and places Toru in something of a love triangle; Midori is a feisty, passionate fellow student to whom Toru is immediately attracted. They become friends but nothing more, mainly because of Toru’s loyalty to Naoko. Midori also has a boyfriend, although she says is not in love with him.

It is a novel in which nothing very much happens, so I don’t want to say more about the ‘plot’, and I have had some difficulty explaining to myself what is so engaging about it; I had high expectations after my friend’s endorsement. When we discussed it in my book club, we all said we found it a slow read; it is not a book you can read quickly. In a weird sort of way it forces you to read at reading out loud pace. You have to take in and savour every word, and every word has been written to be savoured. The level of detail in the observations is extraordinary. The main characters, especially Toru and Naoko, are so gentle and sensitive, that it almost has the same effect as when you hold a newborn baby – they are so fragile that all your movements become softer, your heart and breathing seem to slow down. The purpose of this, I think, is to try to take the reader deeply into the private worlds of the characters, to feel what they feel, see what they see.

There are some brash peripheral characters in the novel, such as Toru’s dorm mates, and there is a strong sense of time and place – student revolts in Japan in the late ‘60s – which serve to highlight the quietness and sensitivity of the main characters, even Midori, who comes across initially as a strong personality, but who is masking deeper insecurities.

It is a novel about coming of age, about growing up, but also about the deep darkness of depression and suicide. Insofar as it is a love story, it asks the reader what the limits of human beings’ commitments to one another are, but it will not give you a straightforward answer.

After reading Norwegian Wood I was given a copy of another of Murakami’s works, published in the UK in 2014, The Strange Library. This is a work of short fiction, a very surreal and fascinating story about a young boy who is imprisoned in the bowels of his local library after being tricked into following a strange old man in search of a reference book about tax collection in the Ottoman Empire. Whilst trapped inside he meets a collection of other weird and wonderful characters also trapped in a kind of time and space limbo. Like much short fiction it concludes in a way that leaves more questions than answers. The edition I read is beautifully illustrated, which added to my appreciation of it immensely, and it has left me wanting to explore more of Murakami’s work.

Norwegian Wood is a strange and powerful novel that will certainly leave its mark. It stays with you long after you finish it. Highly recommended.

If you are familiar with Murakami, which of his books would you recommend?

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“Everything Everything” by Nicola Yoon

Everything Everything, first published in 2015 to great acclaim, was reissued in 2017, after the novel was made into a film, and my edition shows a still from the movie with our two main protagonists, Maddy and Olly, gorgeously pictured on the front cover. It’s a YA novel which I selected for my May reading challenge, having bought it for my teenage daughter a few weeks ago (she hasn’t read it yet!), and I absolutely loved it. I didn’t expect to enjoy it as much as I did, especially when, leafing through, the chapters looked a bit short and I saw that there were several pages with line-drawn illustrations of, for example, diary entries, notes from an exercise book, emails, set out as if they were on a screen, text conversations, etc. Hmm, I thought, all designed to sustain the digital native’s interest! Well, as is so often the case when I stray off my well-beaten literary track, I was truly humbled.

2017-06-21 11.08.32The novel opens with our central character Maddy’s eighteenth birthday. She celebrates this with her mother and her nurse, Carla; Maddy suffers from severe allergies and lives an isolated existence in her hermetically sealed home, which she has not left for many years, so these two women provide the only relationships she really has. Maddy is home schooled, receiving almost all her tuition over Skype from various tutors. Occasionally, they are allowed to tutor her in person, but only after they spend a period of time in a decontamination unit in the house, to ensure Maddy does not come into contact with any pathogens or foreign particles which might harm her. Maddy’s father and older brother were killed in an accident when Maddy was a baby and she and her mother are therefore incredibly close.

Maddy is a voracious reader and in the absence of a lived experience of the world she has framed all her perception of life outside the bubble of her home, and her tiny circle of human contact, from the books she has read. Whilst she is initially reasonably content with her life, accepting its limitations and appreciating the love of her mother and Carla, her love of books is an early hint of her desire to embrace the world. Early on, we learn that she has taught herself not to want things she cannot have:

“Wanting just leads to more wanting. There’s no end to desire.”

But then she meets Olly, when he moves into the house next door with his parents and sister, and everything (everything) changes:

“Maddy knows that this pale half-life is not really living.”

Olly has his own troubles: his father is a violent alcoholic who terrorises the rest of the family. Olly and Maddy begin to communicate by text and email, and it is clear that not only are they deeply attracted but that each fulfils an unmet need in the other. A cascade of events follows which will expose the inexorable pull of the world to the young and vulnerable Maddy, and the pointlessness of an anxious parent’s attempts to protect her child from all risk.

It is a coming-of-age novel, in that we see a young woman separating from her mother, but it is also a great novel for a parent coming to terms with the coming of age of their kids! To that extent, it is an instructive read for parties on both sides of the debate: the older generation can see how important it is for our youngsters to live, love and to learn for themselves, but the young can also see the parent’s perspective, Maddy’s mother’s fear of losing something (everything) so precious to her when she has already experienced so much loss in her life (her husband and son).

It’s a cracking story, with some clever plotting, and great themes which are beautifully handled for a younger readership. It’s well-written and well-crafted and the line drawings do add to the experience! There’s a little bit of sex, but it’s very subtly and sensitively done. Recommended for parents and teenagers alike.

If you have read this book or watched the movie, would you recommend it for teenagers? Could boys and girls alike enjoy it?

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