Writers & Company

Irish novelist Sally Rooney offers a sharp and witty take on love, sex, class and politics

Rooney spoke to Eleanor Wachtel about writing Normal People, a novel about two young people coming-of-age in contemporary Ireland.
Sally Rooney was interviewed by CBC host Eleanor Wachtel in 2019. (CBC)
Listen to the full episode52:34

At 28, Sally Rooney has already won awards and critical praise for her two novels, Conversations with Friends and Normal People. In both books she engages with the social conventions of her time, as her characters navigate coming-of-age in an Ireland reeling from the decline of the Celtic Tiger.

Born in a small town in western Ireland, Rooney worked on her first novel while still a student at Trinity College Dublin. This year she became the youngest person to win Britain's Costa Novel Award for Normal People. It was also longlisted for the Man Booker Prize.

Normal People has just come out in North America, which brought Rooney to Toronto, where she joined Eleanor Wachtel in studio.

A middle class girl in a small town

"Marianne, one of the two protagonists in Normal People, finds her Irish hometown of Carricklea to be quite a stifling place to grow up. There is that sense of surveillance, of growing up in a small town where everyone is known by everyone. People's identities can come to feel quite fixed and that, for Marianne, is difficult. She doesn't feel like it's easy to navigate the social world that develops around her — and once she's lost her ability to navigate that world, it feels like it's gone forever.

"Marianne grows up in a middle-class family and her parents are both lawyers. Her father passed away when she was 13 years old and she has an older brother. Her home life is quite unhappy. Her father seems to have been a very negative presence in her life and then obviously it was difficult for the family when he passed away. She has this brother who she has a very difficult and tense relationship with. Her mother has to negotiate that relationship and doesn't always do so in a way that feels fair to Marianne.

"She's unhappy at home and then she's also unhappy in school not really able to make social life work for her. She responds to that starting to feel she's different and special. She cultivates a sense of feeling superior to others, which, more than anything, is a protective gesture.  When she feels excluded from social life it's much more comforting to tell herself that it's because she's better than everyone than because she's worse."

A working class boy in a small town

"The other main character, Connell, has a very different experience growing up in the town. He loves it. He feels like he understands himself as a member of that small community. He feels like he knows where he stands and that's comforting for him.

"He has fulfilling social relationships. Although he suffers from social anxiety and struggles with the extent to which he feels normal to the outside world, I think those are average feelings for a teenager to have. He's popular in school and he's on the soccer team and he likes that. He likes that stable sense of social status that he can draw from.

"Connell is from a working class background. His mother, Lorraine, had him when she was 17 and he doesn't have a father in his life. Lorraine is actually the cleaner for Marianne's family.  Even though their houses are located maybe a two-and-a-half-minute walk away from one another, in a sense Marianne and Connell grow up in different worlds."

Worlds apart

"The extent to which they're both aware of the class difference between them in the beginning is kind of questionable. They're far more concerned, at the beginning of their relationship when they're both still in school, about the social gulf that separates them. They see that as being far more important and pressing than the material difference in their upbringing and in their social class background.

"When the novel moves forward in time and we see the characters leave Carricklea to go to university, they become aware of their class backgrounds in a very different and new way. Being pulled out of their original social context and placed into a new one, where things like class and cultural capital take on a new significance, they are forced to rethink and re-evaluate the extent to which their relationship has been shaped by those sort of class differences."

Millennial dynamics

"If you break things down and look at Marianne and Connell through a gender-based framework, it's easy to read Connell as the man in the relationship who's holding a gendered power over Marianne. It's easy to read her feelings for him and her submission to him as happening within a gendered framework — and thereby to say he's the power player in the relationship and she's the one perhaps at times even being manipulated.

"But it's also possible to look at a Marxist or class analysis of this relationship. Marianne is from a middle class background and when they both arrive at university, she finds it very easy to navigate the social world they live in and Connell feels lost in that world. Not because he's in any sense Marianne's intellectual inferior — or, as we know from school, her social inferior in any sort of objective way — but simply because he cannot draw on the same store of cultural capital that she can, as his opportunities are more limited. Through that framework, we could say it's Marianne who is really the one with the power, and Connell is being made to feel inferior to her for reasons beyond his control.

"At all times their relationship is moving and shifting, but also it depends on what perspective you choose to look at it from."

Sally Rooney's comments have been edited for length and clarity. 

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