Surprisingly Normal People is an easier read than I thought. For a novel longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, you would expect more complex sentence structures, experimental style, stream-of-consciousness, etcetera. etcetera. Instead, Sally Rooney writes about two young people, strange and helpless and suffering as any other teenagers do, falling in love without ever fully realizing what falling in love means, and therefore screwing it up—their own lives and their relationship—departing and departing and never quite arriving, yet always drawn back to each other. There is certainly a theme that Ms. Rooney wants to tackle in this shortish (266 pages) novel; in fact, she almost effortlessly has her star-crossed couple say in their inner voices, to themselves, asking the essential and inescapable question: how does one be normal? When everyone around you treats you as abnormal, like a monster or an abomination because you (or your family) are too rich/too beautiful/too sensitive…etc—the list goes on. How do you justify yourself, a human being trapped in this estranged, lonely existence?
I never imagined I would enjoy reading about humans’ cruelty to other fellow humans. But Ms. Rooney’s measured, calm, and nuanced prose shows me there is beauty even in such things. Through the eyes of Marianne, one of our two central characters, I found myself face-to-face with this brutal, insidious, ancient impulse of hurting others without any apparent gains to oneself. People are afraid of things they don’t understand. People they don’t understand. And so they give things and people labels, classifying them with “normal” and “weird/odd/nuts”, the latter conveniently given to those that they don’t understand and thus fear, and must work together to single out and destroy. The beauty of showing such capacity of human evils must lie in the ring of truth and the resultant awareness of it, if not gently planting a seed of understanding and empathy in the reader’s soul.
Yet cruelty is not the only thing the writer is good at portraying here. For all the cruelty abound in this novel, the tenderness and redemptive quality of sharing something important with a special someone—even without understanding it yourself—is what I enjoy the most in the reading experience. I find myself deliberately reading faster in the ruthless parts, hoping to find the next scene where our two poor characters to meet again and simply be with each other, in their own little world, even if it only lasts for a few more pages. As the story progresses steadily with each chapter of the book with a uniform ruthless progress of time (five months later, or five minutes later, in the chapter headings), I also find the opening of each chapter refreshing and chilling at the same time, because I never quite know what situations the writer will put the poor characters in again.
Normal People is the kind of fiction that can never be squarely classified into further sub-genres. But I suspect all good literature shares this quality. All I can say that if a book nominated for the Man Booker Prize offers an experience as good as this one, I think I will start reading them every year.