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.

Brilliant settings, rather upsetting: Welcome To Braggsville and The Gamal

March is funny (and not only because it bloody snowed this week, upon the first day of spring, hardy har har what a laugh.)  I spent the entire first week of the month getting through a single book, Welcome To Braggsville, which I liked immensely but couldn’t rush.  Then I devoured five books in the following two weeks, reviewing exactly none of them. After reading The Gamal on St Patrick’s Day, I noticed a trend: both Braggsville and The Gamal were absorbing, transporting, and upsetting as hell.

My rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Why am I gravitating towards stories that make me nervous and miserable for the major characters?  Why all these books in which life and justice behave unfairly towards our modern heroes?  Truly, there was very little heroism to be found in either book; just people doing what they think is best, only to find out that it’s not enough.

The appeal lies in these novels’ settings – how vividly both T. Geronimo Johnson and Ciarán Collins evoked environments they knew, made fictional settings real for those of us who have never seen the likes.

I could feel the nerves and excitement D’aron experienced when first moving to UCal Berkeley after growing up in a small-orbit Southern town, even though I’ve never been to San Francisco or Georgia.  Each time I picked up Welcome To Braggsville, it would take all of four seconds for me to feel the warm California sun or sticky Southern heat again.  I now have such a clear picture of “Bezerkeley’s” wacky ambiance; it’s dorm rooms; the oddities of campus life, it’s like I was in D’Aron’s freshman classes.  And I know I wouldn’t do well in those classes at all. Braggsville – D’Aron’s hometown – also felt realer than real.  Despite Johnson’s gift for exaggeration, the made-up place lived and breathed and shot and swore.  I don’t understand the South, though I’ve read literature that loves it; mocks it; romanticizes it; despises it.  I do understand a community’s weird love for re-enactments – being from Old North Bridge Land – but like D’Aron’s classmates I’m a little scandalized by the notion of an entire town re-creating Civil War times as good old days.

The town and the folk that Johnson conjures half-feel like something down the rabbit hole, half like my own tiny hometown. (Maybe anyone’s home if there’s not enough privacy and a little too much pride.) Identifying with various characters’ perspectives of the place was easy. While most of the messed-up proceedings are told from D’Arons point of view – exposing his frayed nerves as he stumbles while juggling loyalty and righteous indignation – his three friends’ perspective of Braggsville are more akin to what I would surely experience.  Through Louis’s eyes I saw how funny the place could be; through Candice’s, how inhumanely human; and, perhaps most importantly, through Charlie’s eyes I caught a glimpse of how difficult it must be to navigate an environment that sometimes glorifies a heritage of hatred. People expected Charlie to be patient and good-natured about the conspicuous racism inherent in the white parts of Braggsville, and his perspective on the place was often the most telling, though he was more economical with words than his friends.  Four ways of seeing D’Aron’s part of the South, all contributing to the picture of it in my head.

When I finished Welcome To Braggsville – and it took a while because reading it stressed me out – I almost wanted to go back there and fix things for the characters myself. Lou Davis’s Cash-n-Carry Bait Shop and Copy Center, the Gully, the coroner’s office all felt like places that would go on existing after the book was closed. I wish and doubt that things around Braggsville would change a little after D’Aron and his remaining friends left.

And don’t even get me started on the town of Ballyronan in The Gamal. I spent all of Thursday and Friday feeling as though I had just stepped off the plane from Ireland. It wasn’t necessarily a fun mental trip, though there’s a bit of laughter sprinkled throughout Charlie’s tale. Most of the mirth is of the laughing-at variety, rather than laughing-with. Trying to emerge from The Gamal was a challenge, and I still feel rain-soaked, with Charlie’s cut-to-the-bone manner of speech rambling through my head at odd times.

Where the narrative voices in Welcome To Braggsville shift from time to time, The Gamal is told entirely in the first person. Even the court transcripts are peppered throughout with opinions and corrections from our narrator’s uncanny memory. Charlie is begrudgingly writing a book at the bequest of his psychologist, who thinks it will help the young man to come to terms with some upsetting events in his past. On the very first page, he writes: “Don’t be expecting any big flowery longwinded poetic picturesque horseshit passages in this book explaining the look of something…. This is for people like myself who hate reading.” That being said, the town quickly grows into something so real I could probably map it.

“The Gamal” is sort of the village fool, the weirdo kid, though in reality Charlie’s more perspective than the people around him suspect. When James and Siobhan – also outsiders in their own ways – make friends with Charlie in school, their passions for music and dreamy approach to life transform his surroundings into a place where love and hope can flourish. As the two of them fall in love with each other, Charlie sort of falls in love with the bond between them all (and with Siobhan a little, too, because everyone falls in love with her. I’m in love, and you will be too when you read the book). When they cut through the woods or walk down the street; when they write songs in James’s library; when they hang around the football pitch and ignore shouts of abuse, I walked with them. I watched James trounce the other boys, and winced at his father’s unbridled joy, because in Ballyronan you don’t celebrate your son amongst the other fathers. When they stay long after the pub closed, playing the old piano until they fall asleep, my heart hurt because I knew how these perfect scenes would eventually be ruined by jealousy.

The people of Ballyronan aren’t so bad, most of them, but (as I’d already been reminded by the folks of Braggsville) a sleepy town gets comfortable with the way things have always been. Tradition; boundaries; the same faces telling the same jokes at the pub every night, that’s how some people know they’re at home. So a whole community can turn against the sorts of young people who might want to wake the surroundings a bit, through art or protest, which are basically the same thing. The strange and shining light cast by James and Siobhan illuminates every description, turning grey drizzle and bleak schoolyards into scenes that deserve “poetic picturesque horseshit passages” explaining how they look. Charlie can see this, when he’s not “acting the Gamal.” I loved seeing that corner of County Cork through Charlie’s memories, which just made it harder to read about the aftermath of two tragedies that change everything.

Just as I fell automatically into the jumbled patter of Charlie’s voice, the gravity in Ballyronan seemed stronger than that which glued me to my cafe chair. The sprinklings of Irish language and easy attention to dialect made the American accents around me disorienting while I read – it took a whole day to get my bearings in this part of the world again. That’s what I mean by transporting.

But don’t forget: upsetting as hell. The relative youth of these characters – D’Aron, Louis, Candice, Charlie, [Irish] Charlie, Siobhan, James – didn’t protect them from the horrors of unfairness. Their shining ideas, clever hypotheticals, and best efforts weren’t enough to make their dreams come true. I think I got so upset, so wrapped up and nervous, for these characters because I am one of them. I’m a confused twenty-something who would right wrongs or write songs or try to change things if I knew how, but like them all, I’m stumbling half-blindly through the big world. I’ve yet to learn the extent to which people will cling to tradition over sympathy or reason, or how easily betrayals can form in a friend’s mind. It hurt to see misfortune inflicted upon characters I would befriend in another life, and the utter lack of justice those characters faced didn’t exactly inspire faith in how things are run in the world. But these books do inspire sympathy, and small hope, and the unhappy questions that need to be asked.

In Braggsvile and Ballyronan, things fictionally continue much as they always have. The news crews get bored soon enough across from D’Aron’s house and around the pub where Siobhan worked. The big tragedies which shake the narrators to their cores might stir up some dust in daily life for as long as news and novelty last, but the landscape remains unruffled.   The people who grew up and took root in those towns cling to the biases that make them feel like part of the safe crowd, the exclusions that won’t let anyone change what has worked for so long. T. Geronimo Johnson and Ciarán Collins write about places built upon foundations of love and distrust; real-feeling stages for events I wish weren’t so believable. I was transported thoroughly while reading Welcome To Braggsville and The Gamal this month, but I couldn’t live in those books forever. My heart would give out from either the stress or the despair.

Book Review: Tam Lin by Pamela Dean

Tam Lin is part of the “Fairy Tale Series” created by Terri Windling.

Star Ratings

Characters: *** (3 stars)

Character Development: ** (2 stars)

Plot: ** (2 stars)

Writing : *** (3 stars)

Overall: ** (2 stars)

Age range recommendation: 15 + (Mostly because the academic subject matter might be boring to many younger readers, not due to any particular graphic unpleasantness.)

I was so excited to finally read this book. It’s been on my shelf for so long, but I forced myself to wait until spring to start reading. Tam Lin is my favorite legend of all time (I guess it’s technically a ballad), and the story has inspired a whole bunch of really excellent novels and re-tellings. Was Pamela Dean’s version of the story worth the anticipation? Not entirely.

I know several different versions of the song, but they all follow the same general theme, which I have summarized here, for anyone who doesn’t know it. I discussed the characters and themes of the original ballads in a separate post from this one, because I already had way too much to say about this one book. Read that first if you aren’t familiar with the legend.  (Thoughts About Ballads: “Tam Lin” Re-tellings)

"Tam Lin - The Faery Host" by Stephanie Pui-Mun Law

“Tam Lin – The Faery Host” by Stephanie Pui-Mun Law

 

In Pamela Dean’s novel Tam Lin, the ballad’s general theme and storyline has been brought to a college campus in the 1970s. Janet starts her undergraduate studies, and she quickly makes friends with an arcane group of fellow students. The three boys she and her room-mates start to date, and the boys’ acquaintances, behave in a fashion which might be mysteriously esoteric and might just be pretentiously self-impressed. They are college freshmen and theatrical types, after all. In the midst of academic over-ambition; qualms about birth control; and relationship issues, Janet’s started to notice that things aren’t quite normal on campus. The Classics department has a habit of riding horses through the woods every Hallowe’en night to the sound of bagpipes. Nick, Robin, and Thomas are more comfortable arguing over Elizabethan plays than they are going on dates or discussing modern novels. The rumored ghost in Janet’s dorm building has been throwing books out the window, unless it’s someone playing a prank no one can quite understand. The boys are strangely beholden to one Professor Medeous, who is head of Classics – brilliant and manipulative – and a complete mystery. As Janet tries to puzzle over the anomalies on campus, she uncovers clues to a much older and more dangerous cycle of events which seems straight out of a fairy-tale. Her friends’ lives may be in danger, but to help them she’ll need to work out what happened at Blackstock in the previous century. On top of that serious mission, she’s got essays to write and Shakespeare to study!

The book is a long one. It describes Janet’s entire time at Blackstock college; four years of and then she took a class about poetry, and, the five of them sat around discussing Ancient Greek for a solid hour in the dining hall. (These are not direct quotes, because the real descriptions of class schedules and homework assignments sometimes feel like they go on for many pages.) Tam Lin is obviously, and unashamedly, an extensive love-letter to Pamela Dean’s college experience. I didn’t always see the point in the heavy focus on campus life, but I will say that her descriptions did make me feel as though I were right there with Janet in her dorm room, or puzzling over some text in the library, or taking the long way to the bridge to meet some troublesome lad. The thing is, I don’t think the fairy-tale elements of this novel quite justified the hundreds of pages about campus life. It was just too imbalanced for me.

To clarify: Pamela Dean obviously knows her ballads and legends like an absolute wizard. There are several subtle references to medieval British folklore sprinkled throughout the otherwise-mundane chapters of the novel. From the wreaths of symbolic flowers on Janet’s mysterious academic advisor’s door, to the prevalence of green clothing whenever something faintly magical gets suggested, I was always happy to notice a little nod to the old stories which the novel meant to emulate. There are probably a hundred references which I wasn’t sharp enough to catch, too, because in the game of How Many Obscure Literary/Academic/Classical References Can We Hide In One Text?, Tam Lin rivals T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Waste Land”. (Janet even first meets Nick over a shared love of that poem, and that just sets the stage for a bazillion other oh aren’t we a clever crew moments.) But unless you’re easily satisfied with minor hints of fairy activity, these occasional moments of mystical intrigue won’t be enough to keep you entirely engaged. The most otherworldly and exciting scenes took place whenever Janet and her friends went ghost hunting, or exploring at night to chase down the sound of bagpipes and spy on the Hallowe’en hunt. Alas, the unusual events they witness don’t nudge the plot into any truly spooky atmosphere.

It’s not until the book’s final hundred pages that the vague hints and scattered references draw together for a supernatural showdown. By that point, the story’s momentum is too bogged down in tedious information, and the action seemed to come from nowhere. A great many threads and plot lines get pulled into the novel: fairy-tale; ghost story; campus drama; literary tribute; coming-of-age story, but none of these aspects gets developed enough. Instead, we have to slog through too many pages of self-indulgent cleverness to get to the legend at the story’s heart. It’s all well and good for the story to be anchored in a fresh, modern setting – those re-tellings are usually my favorites – but if the readers get bored of homework and gratuitous scholarly musings before they even reach the story’s fantasy elements, they could miss the magical moments all together.

When adapting a folktale or legend, it’s really important that the characters retain the qualities which make them so memorable. In this case, Janet (or whomever her counterpart may be) needs to start out obstinate and entitled, but she should turn into a brave, compassionate heroine by the time she faces the Fairy Queen. Dean’s Janet starts out unbearably smug and never gets much better. She does improve a little, recognizing her faults and follies over the course of four years, but she doesn’t change enough to make us truly root for her. The ballad itself isn’t always terribly long, but in five minutes of singing the character of Janet can undergo a better transformation than she did in all four hundred pages of this novel. Also, for someone who wants to research and understand everything (Janet’s like a Hermione who never stops being a know-it-all), she manages to completely overlook all the signs that Fairyland might be at work in her University. Time traveling crosses her mind, and she’s happily inquisitive about ghosts, so it’s a little hard to believe that she’d never heard Fairport Convention’s version of the song, which had been popular only a few years before the story starts. In fairness to our heroine, Dean does make use of the fairy magic confuses mortals trick, and while this slows the plot to a snail’s pace it does, at least, fit nicely with the genre. Janet’s good qualities – her inquisitive nature, her steadfast determination, and her wits – were completely over-shadowed, for me, by her constant need to be the smartest person in the room and the slight brattishness which never really turns into bravery.

Thomas –the Tam Lin of this version – is actually a fairly good character, both in his own right and in conjunction with the ballad. He doesn’t exactly stand around guarding a forest all day, but the mortal trapped by fairies vibe is right on target once the plot finally gets to work. He can’t seem to graduate, distrusts his friends, and has trouble saying what he means. Dean describes his despair and his enthrallment very well. Thomas’s scenes gave me hope that the parallels between the novel’s namesake and the events unfolding would get clearer. Unfortunately, they did not.

In my opinion, the Fairy Queen should be the coolest character in the story. In the ballads, her scene is my absolute favorite. She can start out as a complete mystery, as the stunning but volatile Classics professor does in the novel, but she absolutely must have a strong personality and embody the traits which are inherent to the legacy of her character. I tend to judge re-tellings by their Fairy Queen, and this one fell disastrously short on that account. We very rarely see the Fairy Queen figure, so her role in the story is largely sustained by other characters’ conversations about her. I know that’s how we learn about her in the ballad, too, but two lines in the song manage to convey an aura of power and dread more distinctly than all the prose-y conversations in this book. Maybe the stakes just weren’t high enough, or the action built up far too quickly out of nothing to create the necessary aura of unearthly menace. Even when delivering my favorite lines, it felt like the character was simply reciting from a hasty script. There is always a scripted nature to any re-telling – a formula the author chooses to follow to a certain degree – but since Pamela Dean ignored most of that formula until the end, when it took over the plot rather too conveniently, I see no reason why the Queen couldn’t have been suitably impressive.

Most minor characters were fairly realistic and reasonably likable, but it just felt like I was eavesdropping on some overzealous undergraduates in a Harvard Square cafe. Janet’s family is delightful – (what a relief, since I really like the kind father part of the ballad) – and her scenes at home do manage to provide her character with some redeeming qualities. The twist at the end makes up for some muddled personalities, keeping in mind that we see everything from Janet’s point-of-view so when she’s confused, we’re confused. The characters who had some connection to the ghost were far more intriguing than those with fey-like qualities, but that’s the opposite of what I’d prefer. Fairyland’s denizens can be inscrutable puzzles and still keep the reader enthralled, but the eldritch members of Blackwood’s faculty and students just seemed wooden and shallow. I didn’t care enough about any of them besides Thomas and, sometimes, his friends.

Maybe my disappointment is due to unrealistic expectations. I would love to know how the book feels to someone who wasn’t in love with the original ballad before they started reading. As a coming-of-age campus novel and nothing more, Tam Lin would still have issues with pacing and character development. But the descriptions of college life in the 1970s – the issues of sexual awakening, scholarly ambitions, and young people on their own for the first time – could possibly interest some readers enough to justify the imbalance between so many mundane details and the underdeveloped supernatural elements. Terri Windling’s introduction and especially the Author’s Note at the end of the book do provide some explanations about the story’s peculiar direction, and I appreciated Dean’s choices a little more after learning what inspired her. Anyone who tries the novel should make sure to read those, as well. These notes won’t entirely excuse the bad pacing and unlikable characters, but they do provide some context and several interesting observations about the ballad itself.

Tam Lin wasn’t a terrible book, despite all my complaints. I did read all the way to the end, and the subtle mysteries building around Blackstock were interesting enough that I cared to find out what Janet would discover. I liked solving bits of the puzzle before she did – recognizing symbols from the ballad – and I liked the twist at the end. Ultimately, though, I spent most of my time reading the book white-knuckled from frustration rather than suspense. There are better books out there which have covered the two main styles of Tam Lin. If you want a thoughtful; twisting; incredibly well-researched modern adaption of the ballad, read Dianna Wynne Jones’s Fire & Hemlock. That’s got a billion and twelve folklore references in it, too, but both the magic and the real world are far more intriguing. For anyone after a twisted and highbrow story of undergrad Classics students in way over their heads, read Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. Tam Lin is a heavy-handed combination of the two genres, and while I would recommend it to devout fans of either genre and/or the 1970s, the novel just doesn’t live up to the legacy of its title.

Thoughts: A Book Hangover after The Secret History by Donna Tartt

This isn’t a proper review.  I don’t know if I’m smart enough to write a real review of The Secret History, and I’m certainly not feeling eloquent or organized enough to attempt one right now.  Instead, here’s an excerpt from my latest blog post about how hard it is to return to the real world after getting sucked into a really good book.

All week, a significant chunk of my attention was always absent from the task at hand, because I was reading an extremely compelling book.  Any time I wasn’t reading I was wishing that I could, and it was quite a busy week for me so there was less spent with the actual novel and more time spent cursing at my steering wheel about the impossibility (or, rather, the illegality) of reading during one’s commute.

The Secret History was written bloody ages ago, published when I was but two years old, but I only got around to reading it just now.  For years, my bookish friends have been insisting that I should pick it up ASAP, because it’s about everything I love.  Mysterious young people with secrets!  Pagan activities in the woods!  The perils of academia; tragically wasted youth; manipulative teachers; well dressed young lads; hilarity in country homes!  Heck, it even takes place in rural Vermont, where I’ve been spending so much time lately.  And it starts with a murder!  I trust my friends’ judgement, and they know what kind of stories I love, so I’m not surprised that this book seized hold of my brain and wouldn’t release it back into the mundane world until I finished the last page two days later.  (I would have happily read it in one day, with rare snack-breaks and without speaking to anyone, but as Bernard Black so aptly points out: “Books must be sold, and money made.”)

So why did I wait to read The Secret History until now; twenty years after its publication?  I tried to read it in my third year of University, even packed it in my barely-containable suitcase of books to bring to Scotland with me for that express purpose, but I found that I couldn’t bear to read about other college students floundering in situations over their heads when my own academic career was fraught with peril.  I mean, I never had to wash human blood off myself and then translate ancient Greek passages for the morning, but I did struggle with my medieval Scottish poetry class now and then…

Now that I’m free from perilous Academia, though, I can sometimes feel downright nostalgic for those happy days of learning and seclusion from the real world.  The Secret History sucked me instantly into its world of pine forests, secretive country homes, literary allusions, and a vivid (if a bit culturally un-diverse) cast of characters.  The ensemble made my most outlandish friends seem tame and one-dimensional in comparison.  It was so strange to read about a time when students had to borrow each others’ typewriters and call each other on payphones, and reading it made me feel rather young.  I like feeling young now and then.  And the plot, while steeped in elbow patches and slow burning cigarettes rather than fast-paced action, was so tense I couldn’t help but snap at any family members or friends who dared to interrupt me while I was clinging, white-knuckled, to the heavy book.

When I finished reading it, I had such trouble extracting myself from the fictional world I had been inhabiting.  This happens frequently when I get immersed in a great book, but I can’t remember the last time I had such trouble re-adjusting to the real world.  I probably sold five or six copies of The Secret History that week, because I felt a dreadful need to throw other readers’ minds and souls into Donna Tartt’s story.  Sort of like that movie The Ring?  But I hope they’ll enjoy reading it on their plane rides and holidays.  It’s an interesting story to be trapped in – so picturesque, smart, and twisted – and a hard one to escape.