Book report: Normal People by Sally Rooney

Watch the video at archive.org

When I used to review albums for a student magazine I always found the most popular and widely-discussed albums to be the hardest to say anything about. Instead I would just find myself writing about what other people had said about it, sort of a review of reviews, or short essays on ‘what even is reviewing’. These were not good, and I did not want to do that for these book reports. I wanted my book reports to be about my thoughts while reading each book, and if my thoughts were embarrassing or few then my reports would be embarrassing or short.

Reading Normal People I could feel it happening, though. I could feel myself reading it in relation to what I knew about it before I opened the cover. That there had been hundreds of people in front of me in the hold queue at Auckland Libraries. That bookstores were said to be selling out of it two Christmases back, and were posting “yes we have Normal People in stock” signs in their front windows. That the hosts of the Papercuts book podcast were convinced it would be shortlisted for a Man Booker award (it was not).

Normal People book cover

There were opposing voices though. My boss read it and thought it was just “fine”. And it is entirely fine, and pleasant to read. As I read Normal People I found myself trying to gauge how it was going. There is no internal dashboard that tells you a book’s score out of ten as you turn the pages. When I go looking for what I think about something I only find myself there thinking, and no sign of the thing I’m trying to think about.

Late in the book one of the two main characters, Connell, attends a literary book reading and decides he doesn’t understand why readings like this exist. “It was culture as class performance […],” thinks Connell, “[A]ll books were ultimately marketed as status symols […]” Reading Normal People in my staff room, I caught the attention of a co-worker who enthused that the book was amazing, and so was Rooney’s earlier novel, but less so.

One time I joked at my book club that we should have a verb for reading-performatively; reading a book in public so that you are seen to be reading that book, to have it be noticed that you are a good reader. I was misunderstood to be asking for a verb for reading-out-loud, as at a literary reading, but actally maybe they can be the same thing.

I think the younger me would have struggled with these characters. I was forever looking for a mirror that showed me myself and forever rejecting any mirror that might appear. I love that these characters, Connell and Marianne, want to be seen and understood but they also sorely want to be invisible and normal and unremarkable.

Can I just say, though, that I was not expecting there to be as much sex in this book as there is and I love that no one has really mentioned that anywhere I’ve heard the book discussed. Probably my favourite thing as a young reader was discovering the book I was reading had sex bits in it, and there was no way I was ever going to tell anyone about it in case my parents found out and took the book away. Or worse: tried to talk to me about it.

Normal People by Sally Rooney is available at Auckland Libraries.

Book reports