How do we get to hear about a new publication, film or television series? There’s probably a thousand and one answers but for the most part, at least in my case, the first awareness just seems to appear without the pin-point; you didn’t know anything about it and now you do but you can’t remember exactly when; it just loomed up out of the fog, so to speak, like an iceberg. It’s just suddenly there! Thus it was with Normal People by Sally Rooney a young Irish writer from Co. Mayo, way out west.
Actually, I first became aware of the book through its BBC adaptation, looming up through the fog of Radio 4. It was supposed to be all about teenage love in the new Ireland, the post religion one, rumoured to be full of sex, sex and more sex, all graphically illustrated. The old censors would probably have died of a heart attack – of a particularly pleasant variety, presumably. Indeed, one right-wing Irish MP proclaimed on a TV chat show around 1970, in mourning the decline of the country’s morals, “There was no sex in Ireland before the arrival of television”. Sally Rooney in conjunction with the BBC was going to put this man’s claims on full afterburner – with updates. It wasn’t just television now, it was I-player as well.
Having watched a number of good series on I-player, my partner and I decided to give Normal People a chance. By this stage we’d heard so much hype, iceberg accompanied and not, that we thought we might be missing out on something special and important. I mean, only someone living on a desert island hasn’t seen Breaking Bad. We didn’t want people to think of us as islanders – or deserters. We wanted to fit in.
So what happened? We watched one episode and it simply didn’t click. Neither of us could engage with the characters or the situations. It came across as rather dull and formulaic, none of the characters inspiring any feelings or sympathy. We never went back to it.
And there things might have stayed. However, during a phone call with one of my sisters, she mentioned Normal People. I told her we’d seen one episode on BBC I-player and wouldn’t be bothering with it any more. She assured me the book was far better and that I really must read it – “and then you can write a review of it”. So I went to Amazon and bought Normal People by Sally Rooney for the vast sum of four pounds and fifty pence.
When do you get your first instincts about a book? When does the first transmission start? When do you start to realise if this is going to be good, bad or just plain ugly. Some books grab you with the very first sentence – and some don’t. Some take a lot longer – like the whole book – and still leave you ungrabbed. I watched The Bourne Identity, a film based on the eponymous book by Robert Ludlum, following a TV interview with the director. I knew I had to see this. It was edge of the seat exciting, a true masterpiece of the thriller genre. Based on the old assumption that “the book is better than the film”, I couldn’t wait to see it in print. Borrowing a copy, I settled down for, at the very least, the print version of what I had seen on the DVD. By the end of the first paragraph, my heart began sinking and by the end of the first chapter, I had abandoned the book. The man can’t write. It doesn’t stop him selling by the shed load.
Around the age of 20, I read an Alistair McClean thriller and found it positively underwhelming. A blurb on the back said something like “the final scene in the lift shaft is truly exciting”; I never noticed. OK, so what? About 40 years later I was given an Alistair McClean book, centred on Singapore in WW2 – yep, right up my street. This was going to be good. Maybe I had just been too young the first time around – too young for a novel. I got stuck in. My excitement was soon replaced by that old sinking feeling. But wait, this was my subject! I struggled on. After three chapters, I’d had enough. I quit. The man can’t write. I then found out that in the 1950s he was supposed to be the top selling British author so it didn’t stop him selling by the shed load either.
Sally Rooney’s book is “The million copy bestseller”, no less, and praised to the skies by, well, just about everyone. It is the winner of numerous awards, it’s book of some year, shortlisted, longlisted, a veritable free-range list positioner. Indeed, so great is the listing, praising and awarding that extra pages have to be added like a royal baggage train from medieval times to carry all the loot. There is a special inner front cover, in card, that carries even more quotes from the great and the good, a veritable Russian artillery salvo of compliments, praise and general fawning. There are no fewer than seven pages of praise; even Vladimir Putin would be embarrassed by the sheer quantity of the stuff.
So, does the book deserve it? The short answer is no. Given the enthusiastic endorsement of my very sensible sister – yeah, that one – I approached the book with the nearest thing I could muster to an open mind. Within a few sentences, I was getting that old sinking feeling. It just wasn’t connecting. It’s almost as though the author was trying too hard. I was trying hard too, hoping that if I persisted, I might get into it. But how hard do you persist? What are you persisting for? What is a film – or a movie? Ultimately it is simply a series of flickering lights on a screen. It is the job of the director to make sure you see more than that. What is a book? Ultimately it is a series of marks on bound sheets of paper. It is the job of the author to persuade you that that these marks mean something – and those of this author don’t, at least not to me. In trying to persist, I ended up reading on a word by word basis as though I were reading Italian – a language I can read without really understanding anything of it. I was able to read every word (no!) but I couldn’t get them to stick together in any form that conveyed any real meaning. I even tried skipping whole chapters to see if I could pick up a bit of flying speed, but I couldn’t even get off the runway. Eventually, I decided to go by bus! Yep, I gave up – just as we had with the I-player version. Same story, just a different medium.
So what about the baggage train of awards, wealth and praise piled up by the court jesters and all the pretty people in with the in-crowd? Explain that, huh! Well, I can start with the rather bland statement that it would be a very boring world if we all liked the same thing. Trying to go a bit deeper, I believe that there are certain times when something just hits a public mood because it happens to be in the right place at the right time. Call it fashion if you want. Sometimes external circumstances can help to a degree, and some even help to a whole lot of degrees like they were rocket-propelled. Take for example, Spycatcher by Peter Wright. When this book, the memoirs of and by a retired MI5 officer, was published in 1987, a worldwide sale of 40,000 was anticipated, a decidedly optimistic figure given the quality of the writing; it’s dire. Then the book got a break. Margaret Thatcher, the then Prime Minister, had the book banned – but that worked only in the UK. Sales rocketed and soon the UK was flooded with imported copies and openly sold in London shops which is where I bought mine. Soon after, Private Eye, the satirical magazine, asked if anyone had actually read the entire book. Yep, it was that bad. But it sold, not 40,000 but two million!
There are others. Agatha Christie goes on selling with her cardboard cutout figures and plots, maintaining that format even when transferred to screen. Jeffrey Archer, with his “drastically reductionist view of the human experience” as once described by The Daily Telegraph, still keeps selling. And I bet they’ve had their share of wonderful reviews too: good reviews seem to generate more good reviews; it’s the old multiplier effect. No-one wants to notice that the Emperor is naked. So, pure sales are hardly an indication of quality.
But to go back to a particular mood at a particular time. The first book out of the Ukraine debacle will probably be a best seller – and with that in mind there’s probably someone working on one – or 50 – right now. Normal People, I suspect, has benefited from a change in mood, at least sales wise. Some years ago, an English friend phoned me out of the blue, asking “What does it feel like to be trendy?” “What are you talking about?” I demanded. “Well” he came back, “it’s very trendy to be Irish these days.” Yep, at the moment being Irish is in! That magic tag is a great sales booster. When something becomes fashionable, the quality threshold is often lowered. Even the BBC can fall victim, as evidenced by the broadcast of some very second rate stuff that would never have got a look in, but for the Irish tag. According to ‘our man in Berlin’ some writers originally from East Germany would praise the newly united country because at last their books were being published, something the old East German state refused to do. When you’d read the books you could understand why – and it wasn’t the ideas therein. Don’t get me wrong. There are some very good books out there by Irish writers but Normal People isn’t one of them.
There was one single thing in Rooney’s tale of teenage love in the west of Ireland that caught my eye. On page 32 (just to prove I’ve read some of it) there is a passage
“The only time she leaves the house is to go to school and the enforced Mass trip on Sundays … “
The enforced Mass trip on Sundays? I thought that belonged to the old Ireland, when it was mired in the clerical bog, when being Irish in a public place was not seen as a positive asset.
The times, they do roll on. They are indeed a-changing. And I still can’t fit in.
Normal People review © Stephen Kearney April 2022
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