There are reasons to read a book and then there are reasons to never put the book down (even if you want to). That is the kind of spell that Sally Rooney casts in her book, Normal People.
The protagonists are in high school in a city named Carricklea, in Ireland, when they start getting attracted to each other. Unlike the teenage romances where their raging hormones (which I think is a myth in itself) are pulling them to each other, it is rather what the other considers normal about the other.
Both of them have internal conflicts and thoughts that they feel are considered ‘weird’ or would not be accepted by society at large. Connell is attracted to Marianne’s ability to not be affected by what people think about her while Marianne is enamoured by the way that Connell tends to easily fit in.
The book captures and explores the inner thoughts and workings of each character in a beautiful way. Rooney does not use any double quotes to indicate the beginning or end of a dialogue. This in retrospect, I believe breaks down the boundary of the inner thoughts and the ones that the characters actually present.
The title could not have been more apt since the entire book is a practice in effacing what we consider to be the definition of ‘normal’. Then it goes on to define it as a constricting mould that might have broken many.
The narrative while it traces the evolving relationship between Connell and Marianne is always revealing their personal journeys. What is motivating them to take the actions that they do, how they are growing as individuals and how they are influencing people around themselves. Rooney talks about and explores the idea of different kinds of violence. Not just physical but psychological as well. The imprint of both that it left on both the perpetrator and the victim. The rules of what is normal are used as a weapon by others as well as by the protagonists against themselves.
Mental health is another inextricable strain that is built into the narrative. The motivation of the author and her understanding of mental health was represented exquisitely. In her motivation to deconstruct the definition of normalcy she shows all of her characters dealing with some sort of ‘illness’. But it never becomes all-consuming.
The experience when it is being described gives you a window into what it might feel like but it never defines the protagonists. In fact, it is liberating when a diagnosis is made and an illness is named because now one can move towards making themselves better. In the end, it is the ones that are going around under the guise of normality, undiagnosed, that are dangerous.
This was one of the books in a long time that I read that compelled me to read on even when I wanted to put it down because of the horrors that the characters were going through. In a way, Rooney is crushing every semblance of familiarity that you might have with what you define as normal. But then she sets you free by offering you the key to open up the rigid definition of it.