A spoiler free review of Sally Rooney’s ‘Normal People’ and its BBC adaptation.
Having hopped on the bandwagon once it had already well and truly taken off, I recently delved into Sally Rooney’s ‘Normal People’, which explores the relationship between Irish teenagers Marianne and Connell as they come in and out of each other’s lives throughout school and university. Though my degree would suggest that I am an avid reader, I rarely read for pleasure, and this was my first attempt in a while at giving it a go without the looming threat of an upcoming essay.
At first, the simple style, lack of speech marks and unoriginal subject of teenagers navigating their own lives and the lives of one another made me believe that this book would come dangerously close to plummeting into literary cliché. However, my initial hesitation was overthrown by my inability to put the book down. Though we tend to laud the rich descriptions and extraordinary tales of Milton, Shakespeare and suchlike, there is something undeniably impressive about a writer who manages to captivate the reader with a narrative that is ostensibly mundane. There is nothing flashy about Rooney’s writing; in fact, one would be tempted to say after reading the book, as if looking at the latest priceless doodle in an art gallery, ‘I could do that.’ But this is what makes the text so remarkable: the tale seems like one anyone could write, and the lives depicted like anyone could live. And yet, if you tried to sit down and write a story like this, you would realise that Rooney has achieved an incredible feat; she makes the banal paradoxically innovative and enthralling, whilst simultaneously leaving the reader with the impression that this act is effortless. Although there are definite grounds for the argument that there are moments which verge on cheesy, if anything, these serve to remind the reader that the text is a coming-of-age novel, with the narrator reflecting the protagonists in their journey to find an individual voice.
With this in mind, I had high hopes for the BBC adaptation of the novel. As is inevitable when anyone reads a work of fiction, I had established my own specific opinions of how the characters should be portrayed. Therefore, I began the series extremely sceptical, prepared to pick apart even the smallest decision that disagreed with the images I had formed in my head. However, I was shocked to find that the series surpassed all of my seemingly insurmountable expectations. Even when I tried to find fault in choices like the tiny detail of Elaine’s absence in Italy (a background character whose name most readers will not remember), I could not shake the feeling of admiration for the TV adaptation. I cannot help but feel that Rooney’s control over the creation of the series, alongside screenwriter Alice Birch, contributed enormously to its success. Moreover, whilst one of my greatest worries about the adaption was that the inner-thoughts of the characters would be lost on the screen, the performances of Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal effectively ensured that the characters’ feelings could be read just as easily on their faces as in the book.
Whilst this is definitely not a series to watch with your parents (the main characters are naked as often as they are not), I highly recommend both the book and the series to anyone who has a spare few hours. I would argue that seeing how Rooney and Birch adapt the novel is almost as enjoyable as watching the events unfold. But more than that, this story is a poignant reminder of how phantasmic the notion of ‘normal people’ is, thus exposing the fruitlessness of any pursuit of ‘normality’. And, most impressively for anyone interested in the arts, it effectively reveals that the most unremarkable relationship can, through the right creative lens, become something wholly remarkable.