Earlier this year, when The Times review of Irish writer Sally Rooney’s second novel deemed her ‘the first great millennial author,’ the term ‘millennial’ wasn’t loaded with any of the disparaging or pejorative connotations it usually is. This labelling of the 27-year-old, and the transfer of authority to her and her understanding of the psyche of the modern youth, is nothing new. The two years since her debut novel Conversations With Friends was published have seen her ascend in a rare straddling of word-of-mouth commercial and critical success. The deployment of the phrase ‘millennial’ in positive reviews of her work is often in reference to the fluency with which her writing tackles, head on, relationships in the late capitalist period and all they include: intimacy, or a lack of it; the internet; and the power that class and gender still hold in the modern Dublin which her two works so far have been largely set in.
The power of Rooney’s writing is in the ease with which she combines these aspects: readers and critics alike have noted, for instance, that in her hands, the utilisation of ‘internet speak’ in Conversations With Friends as the main character Frances deals out tokens and messages of annoyance and affection on social media and email alike. Like the rest of Rooney’s prose, the sections where her characters interact with the online world are understated, and, crucially, not done for effect or to prove their status as young Irish people. Instead, Rooney’s work is all about relationships – not just between the quartet whose digressions make up the central plot of Conversations With Friends, in particular the struggling young poet Frances, or the couple struggling to make it work in Normal People; the online chatter in the books only serves to deepen our understanding of these relationships, and how the people within them help or hinder their connections with others via the Internet. Many readers have noted how Rooney captures, using fairly simplistic prose, the disconnect between the manner in which the young couple who centre the novel, Connell and Marianne, wish to relate to each other, and the conversations and interactions they actually end up having as their relationship deepens and fluctuates following their move to Dublin from a smaller town nearby. The novelist conveys with ease the misunderstanding between the said and unsaid, laying bare the assumed between the two, both in their own ways embarrassed by either their own actions in the past as adolescents or the tension of the class relations between the pair.
Rooney’s protagonists are always accessible thanks to her smart first-person narration, and are entirely relatable to university students, with Rooney’s own alma mater, Trinity College Dublin, featuring in both novels. They worry and stress and analyse themselves, their bodies, their characters, but also do the same to the state of the world around them in post-recession Ireland, wondering how both can be made better and seeking to understand whilst remaining as confounded by all as many are in their early twenties. In the narrative regarding Frances’ continuing, debilitating illness that transpires to be endometriosis, for example, Rooney’s sympathy and deep understanding of young women is revealed as a crucial part of her work. Frances initially, like many women with the illness, dismisses her excruciating period pain as something to merely suffer through, whilst Rooney’s inclusion of a scene between the embarrassed and in-pain Frances and a dismissive male doctor will surely reverberate with many. Of all her characters, Frances and Marianne in particular also have the inarticulable parts of their sexualities and nuances of their characters that it is clear they themselves have yet to figure out revealed to the reader without any authorial judgment – there is a clear understanding of why young women such as them make the choices they do.
Rooney’s undeniable talent has seen Normal People shortlisted for the for the Man Booker prize, and winning the Waterstones Book of the Year Award 2018. However, when interviewed, the novelist comes across as measured and in regards to the phrase she receives when it comes to the articulation of what it means to be in the middle of a relationship, be it sexual, familial, romantic or even just a friendship. Her clear style of prose, described as both ‘sparkling’ and ‘sparse’ and actually falling somewhere in the middle, is now one of the most admired and emulated out there, with her clear, cool and yet ultimately compassionate manner having already earned her many well-deserved fans.
Image: Jorge Láscar via Flickr