Review: Normal People by Sally Rooney

Front Cover

Sally Rooney’s novels have away of finding me right when I need them most, and they always hurt my feelings.  There’s not much I can say about Normal People that other reviewers haven’t already said, so I’ll be brief.

I liked Conversations With Friends quite a lot when I read it this time last year, though again I took it right to heart and needed a moment to recover after. On the surface, Normal People is very – almost overly – similar, in style and structure especially.  Normal People also focuses on the internal workings of some complicated and intense relationships. The settings are even similar: Trinity College, a summer house abroad…  But Rooney’s already good writing has improved tenfold in this second offering. Her characters feel so real I miss them. And the joys and anguish they suffer through, though dramatic, are flawless mirrors held up to the experiences of so many individuals learning to be adults and trying to be people.

The plot, quickly, is as follows: Connell and Marianne are schoolmates in county Sligo. He’s quiet but popular, concerned about how others perceive him, secretly intellectual.  She’s friendless and refuses to alter her abrasive personality to remedy this. Normally the two of them would never come into contact, but Connell’s mother cleans Marianne’s house for a living and in this pocket of the world the two become something like friends, something like lovers.  The narrative skips ahead days, weeks, months every chapter to show us the progressions and regressions of their entanglement. Eventually, both characters are students at Trinity, where Marianne has found herself among like-minded people and Connell feels isolated. Though their circumstances have changed, their fraught reliance on one another has not.

We follow Marianne through abuse, genius, friendships, and attempted self-destruction. We watch Connell struggle with class, creativity, love, and depression. All the while, I was desperately hoping they’d be there for each other. And sometimes they are.

Even though the characters in Normal People are teenagers, it’s definitely a book for adults. I would have enjoyed it as a young person, but part of the magic here is that they were slightly younger than me, and I felt oddly protective of their feelings even while they were destroying mine.  (There’s also quite a lot of sex and misery, so, like, not a book for people under 13.)

It will take me a few weeks to get my heart back on straight(ish) after reading this.  Normal People comes out in the states this April. Buy it – locally! independently! – and fall right in.

Book Review: Among Others by Jo Walton

Star Ratings:

Characters: **** (4 stars)

Character Development: ***** (5 stars)

Plot: *** (3 stars)

Writing: **** (4 stars)

Overall: **** (4 stars)

Age range recommendation: This isn’t really YA, but could (and should) be read by teenagers, too.

This book tripped me sideways and tossed me back into the world of vintage SciFi and Fantasy. You know those short-sh books with the weirdly illustrated covers and titles that don’t always correlate with the stories inside? Books like these:

SfFcoversAmong Others is basically a love-letter to that genre, and it made me want to love those books, too. I filled up four notebook pages trying to write down every reference to a book Morwenna Phelps writes in her diary. And I’m sure I missed quite a few. The book-devouring young teenager who narrates Walton’s story through her candid, enthralling journal entries is definitely more well-read in that genre than I am. There was an awful lot to read in the late 1970s! She even gives room-mate Rosie some close competition. Instead of feeling alienated by all the references (and I only got maybe 1/3 of them) I’m newly curious to read more. Books about books are so often marvelous.

Among Others is also a love-letter to libraries. Here’s the dedication:

among others dedication

I liked it so much I had to take a picture

The whole book was a fantastic reminder that we should appreciate the fact that libraries let us read whatever books we want, for free, without judging us or giving us trouble. Librarians want you to read, and they want to get you the books you’re looking for. Could there be anything better in life? As Mori writes,

“Interlibrary loans are a wonder of the world and a glory of civilization.” (p. 59)

I’ll probably buy Among Others from my bookshop, as I liked it enough to own it, but I’m pleased to have borrowed it from the library for my first reading experience.

Morwenna is half a set of twins, but nobody at the chilly boarding school she’s been shipped to knows that. Her mother was a witch overtaken by the desire for unnatural power, and Mori’s sister Morganna (called Mor) was killed as the girls attempted to stop their mother the previous Autumn. The “accident” that killed Mor crippled Morwenna, and leaves her carrying the weight of Mor’s memory everywhere in life. (The closeness of their names is confusing at first, but also shows how inseparable they were. Mori was defined by Mor, and remains so in her absence.)

In her diary, Mori writes fantastical memories of the sisters running errands for fairies in the ruined factories of their Welsh home. The fairies weren’t the dainty little figures her school-mates would probably imagine. Speaking in twisted phrases; more natural than supernatural; and unreliable at best; the fairies in Aberdare seem to lend their power to whomever knows how to ask for it. So Mori’s mother can manifest evil using the same energy that the young girls could use to destroy factories or protect themselves from harm. Magic works by coincidence, in ways that could almost be explained away by someone who didn’t see what Mori can see. The fairies are a part of the natural order of things, and see how to alter reality with little nudges here and there. Mori and Mor did magic for the fairies without fully understanding it when they were young, and now at Arlinghurst Mori must to find a way to access that power again. As real life obliges to shape itself into what she requests, though, the moral complications of altering the future become worrisome. Can friends you find after magically requesting a “karass” (like those cosmically-linked people in Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle) truly like you, or are they obliged by external powers beyond their comprehension? Is it worth it to bear the knowledge that she’s shaped reality for her own means?

“It’s not magic that reaches into the world and changes things. It’s all inside my body. I thought, sitting there, that everything is magic. Using things connects them to you, being in the world connects you to the world… Fairies are more in the magic than in the world, and people are more in the world than in the magic…. That’s why messing with magic so often becomes evil, because it’s going against that pattern.” (p 294)

Her cunning mother tries to manipulate her from afar, the girls at school do rotten things to newcomers, and the fairies in England don’t even speak Welsh! (On that note, I loved the atmospheric differences between Wales and England. The different settings really made the natural magic more accessible to imagine.) Among Others, for all its references to Sci Fi and Fantasy books with epic journeys and cosmic scopes, is mostly a novel about a girl who turns to fiction for guidance as her life becomes harder and harder to believe. Books save her in multiple ways. So many book-ish characters find purpose through literature and hope in other people’s stories. That’s a common trend in novels that I usually enjoy. But Walton takes that lifeline two steps further, here. During one heart-wrenching scene in which Mori has to confront the mortal barrier between herself and her sister, a fairy friend reminds her that she is “half way.”

“… He didn’t mean I was half dead without her or that she was halfway through or any of that, he meant that I was halfway through Babel 17 and if I went on I would never find out how it came out.

There may be stranger reasons for being alive.” (p 89)

I loved Among Others for its unashamedly nerdy main character, and for its glorification of Fantasy as a means to shape young people’s lives. The fairy magic was subtle and fairly organic: enchanted rocks and doorways made of branches instead of big crazy incantations. I’m still unsure what, exactly, Mori’s mother was up to with her manipulative magic and cruel behavior. She rarely appears in the actual narrative, messing with her daughter’s life from afar, instead. This made the book’s climax a little jarring. The magical philosophies could have been developed a little further for my tastes, too, and would have made this into more of a Fantasy book to be read alongside those which Mori’s SF/F book club analyzes so enthusiastically. But since I’m a firm believer that the worlds and actions of fairies should remain inexplicable to human minds, I was happy to go with the flow of how Mori’s understanding of magic grew and changed.

Mori herself grows and changes drastically between September, 1979 and February of 1980. It was a pleasure to read along as she learned how to become her own person, not just a product of her past. Making friends who share her passion and intelligence, forcing herself to admit that there were things she didn’t know, voicing pragmatic quips about the rather silly ways adults can treat handicapped young people: I was constantly delighted by her presence of mind and her emotional integrity. That’s not to say she couldn’t be a bit of a brat or a know-it-all sometimes. But this is her diary, after all. Compared to many of the novels I’ve read in a similar format, Morwenna Phelps’s version of her own story is wonderful to visit for several very happy hours of reading.

Immediately after finishing Among Others I read Kurt Vonnegut’s Sirens Of Titan to get back into the spirit of things. That review will have to wait for another day, but I think I enjoyed it even better thanks to the praise of Science Fiction that Walton had planted in my head. I doubt I’ll ever make it through the 200-ish books Mori mentions, and that’s ok. The exaltation of all those stories was enough to re-kindle my interest in my own favorites from that genre. (For example, I want to get back into LeGuin, Stewart, and Zelazny. It’s been a while.) My book-ish childhood was very different from Morwenna’s, but I recognize a kindred spirit in how her reading colors her view of the world. I recommend Among Others to adults who remember leading vivid fantasy lives as young people, and to teenagers who are getting passionate about Fantasy and Science Fiction. Morwenna becomes a fast friend of the reader; you will feel like part of her “karass” by the time you read her last diary entry. There’s a certain joy known to lonely children who find solace in literature, and an even greater felicity in reading a book that turns that joy into real magical experiences.

Archived Review: Looking For Alaska by John Green

Originally posted to Dark Lady Reviews on May 2, 2011.

 

 

Looking For Alaska by John Green

Star Ratings
Characters: **** (4 stars)
Character Development:*** (3 stars)
Plot:**** (4 stars)
Writing:*****(5 stars)
Overall:**** (4 stars)

Age Range Recommendation: Ages 13 and up.

I first heard of YA author John Green via his wildly popular (with good reason) youtube channel Vlogbrothers, in which he discusses brilliant and hilarious subjects with his equally clever brother, Hank. At one point, he mentioned that the protagonist in his first novel, Looking For Alaska, was obsessed with the dying words of famous people, and I realized that I had to read the book as quickly as possible. Last words are morbidly fascinating, frequently funny, and it’s hard to dislike a character who has such a cool obsession. The book is not long and is easy to read; at 221 pages I was able to power through it in an evening.  While the writing is beautiful and the dialogue snappy there were moments when I had to tear my eyes away from the page to realize that I’d read something very deep and incredibly moving. I’m not always comfortable with having to think hard about morals and emotions, lacking them myself, but in Looking For Alaska there is enough sarcastic humor to balance out the wisdom. John Green treats teenagers with a respect not always present in books about high school.  He has his protagonist Miles “Pudge” Halter say,

“When adults say, ‘teenagers think they are invincible’ with that sly, stupid smile on their faces, they don’t know how right they are. We need never be hopeless, because we can never be irreparably broken. We think that we are invincible because we are. We cannot be born, and we cannot die. Like all energy, we can only change shapes and sizes and manifestations. They forget that when they get old.”

My own fondness for Peter Pan-type manifestos aside, this little speech does a good job of summarizing the plot of the book as well as its message. The story concentrates on Miles, who leaves his dreary public school in Florida to attend Culver Creek Boarding School in Alabama, where he meets the title character (and possibly the most compelling character in YA literature for quite a while) Alaska Young. Naturally, Alaska is gorgeous and quirky and smarmy and wise, but it is a mark of Green’s true understanding of teenage-hood that he doesn’t have Miles and Alaska launch into a romantic but doomed relationship. They both have significant others, neither of whom are bad or abusive.  For the first half of the book, when we are not reading about Alaska, Miles’ new friends spend a lot of time planning epic pranks, which are entertaining but not gripping enough to make up the entire plot of the novel.

Luckily (or unluckily as the case may be), a disastrously fatal event occurs in the very middle of the book, right after the reader has become accustomed to the easy and fun environment, which seizes control and makes the plot as important as it is. Green calls the first half of the book “Before” and the second half “After,” and at first I looked at the heading of each chapter and demanded “before WHAT?” but it was explained soon enough, and I was rather upset (successfully, I suppose) by the abruptness of how quickly life can change. There are still moments of humor in the second half of the book, but this is where the intelligence of Green’s writing shines through: as Miles and his friends have to deal with tragedy while still attempting to live through high school. On rare occasions I got a little put-off by the extensive introspection and the presence of feelings, but I think a more sociable person would not have problems with this at all.

My only other complaint is that, while the characters are memorable, their development seems a little stunted and hard to explain, although this is probably an inherent problem with writing relatively short books, especially ones like this with a cast of several unique major characters.  The portrayal of teenagers is spot on – I know this because I still sometimes think that I am fourteen years old and my reading-brain hasn’t changed much since I was – and it’s easy to forget that Green is in his thirties and has a young son. The characters are stressed but functioning (for the most part) and their occasional shortcomings are completely relatable because, hey, they’re trying to deal with death and understand World Religion at the same time. In this way, the book can be read by anyone who has ever been in high school and appreciated not only for its beauty and humor but also for its honesty.

Looking For Alaska has been challenged a few schools because of its treatment of sexuality and death, but as John Green aptly points out in his vlog “I Am Not A Pornographer,” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fHMPtYvZ8tM) it doesn’t glorify sex in any way; it shows quite accurately how awkward and uncomfortable it is to be a teenager. And, honestly, if someone is in high school and being told not to read the book by their concerned adult superiors, it’s all a bit late anyway. Teenagers know how unpleasant it is to be them, they don’t need to be shielded from their own realities.  As Green says in his video on the subject, with enough wisdom to make Confucius weep, “Shut up and stop condescending to teenagers!” The treatment of a student’s death, too, is not offensive but rather completely accurate.

When I was in a high school (similarly, a rather small private school) a student died in a car crash and no one knew what to do. The administration tried to be understanding, but they were sometimes too overly-sensitive and were criticized either for not giving us the day off or, conversely, for assuming that we needed to be treated like children. The students wanted to express their grief but they seemed to be all jumping on one bandwagon to mourn a kid they barely knew. I was confused and everyone was confused and that is what life is like. Looking For Alaska captures this perfectly.  Some of the dialogue seems to be lifted directly from the halls of my school and the writing is respectful without pandering to the reader or to the characters. No one is a villain, no one is a hero, everyone is just trying to sort out their lives and no reader should be able to find fault with this. I’ll repeat my earlier point: John Green knows what’s up. He’s got shit down to a science.