Winner: Best Novel of the Year
The Costa Judges: ‘A trailblazing novel about modern life and love that will electrify any reader.’
The discussion and debate is over. It is our absolute pleasure to reveal Sally Rooney’s novel Normal People as our Waterstones Book of the Year 2018.
From a deeply impressive shortlist, our winner emerged as the book without peer. Achingly observed, wry and moving, Normal People confirms Sally Rooney as the guiding light to our modern experience, her second novel unspooling the tale of how one life can forever change another, no matter the years that pass. It is a story that is absolutely universal to us all, and it is brilliant.
Already a firm favourite of Waterstones since the publication in 2017 of her brilliant first novel, Conversations with Friends, Sally Rooney’s Normal People was swiftly championed by our booksellers and received an unprecedented number of bookseller votes.
A very intimate character study of two young people trying to figure out how to love each other, Normal People is written in compressed, composed, allusive prose that invites you read behind the lines. So much in it is shown and not told. Grounded in the everyday, it transforms what might have been a flimsy subject into something that demands a lot of the reader
She woz robbed! Actually, I don’t believe Sally Rooney’s Normal People (Faber, £14.99) should have made the Man Booker shortlist: it’s far too good to be lumped in with a bunch of books you need a PhD in arcane philosophy to plough through. Instead, Rooney’s second novel is one you read in three days flat, a Tube stop-missing, escalator-reading tale of frustrated love between two Irish teenagers, Connell and Marianne. Rooney’s style is pure poetry, sparse and heartbreaking, and writing this three months after I finished it I find my chest still aches for the pair of them.
It’s very different in tone to Rooney’s debut, but conveys her seemingly effortless ability to track the intensely experienced, minute-by-minute shifts in thought and feeling within a relationship and to make each and every shift matter. I suspect the talented Rooney will go on to write a more ambitious novel than this, but I very much doubt it will be more enjoyable.
There’s no question that 27-year-old Sally Rooney is this year’s literary star. Normal People, which was named Waterstones book of the year, is a follow-up to her lauded debut, Conversations with Friends. It deals with the emotional trials and tangles of the relationship between two bright Dublin students, Connell and Marianne. Rooney has been called the voice of her generation (and she probably is), but her talents are greater than that. Her genius for capturing people with all their self-conceits and occasional virtues puts her in a fine tradition of sharp social observation stretching back to Jane Austen.
It’s a compulsive formula, narrated with such crystalline simplicity that it makes most other novels look like a chore. But it’s chewy too, with ambiguities about the impact of Marianne’s toxic family life... and an ending so delicately poised that you’re left eager to press the book on a friend so you can argue over the extent to which Connell’s emotional maturity comes at the expense of Marianne’s dignity. Some heavy hitters are in with a shot at this year’s Booker but a better book than Normal People will have to be very good indeed.
Rooney captures the two protagonists’ inner worlds in minute detail while the other characters are sketchily drawn cyphers of bragging boyfriends, uncaring parents or bullying siblings, giving the impression that Marianne and Connell’s circling of each other, reading each other’s thoughts and understanding each tiny flinch of body language is all that matters in their world...Handled less deftly, Marianne and Connell could be exasperating to anyone not of their generation – introspective millennials doing too much thinking and never making a solid decision. By portraying their relationship so poetically, however, in all its heartrending, intimate detail, Rooney’s tale of star-crossed lovers is every bit as moving and tragic as Shakespeare’s.
Normal People doesn’t bear much resemblance to apprentice work. The evenness of Rooney’s attention is a huge asset, page by page, and the sign of an unusual sensibility. The only question is whether she gives quite enough shape to the story of ‘the chemistry between two people who, over the course of several years, apparently could not leave one another alone’ . . . Nowadays it’s relatively easy to get a first novel published, hard to take the next step with any confidence. Sally Rooney is well on her way, propelled by unusual quantities of acclaim and assurance. And yet, Normal People seems a less mature project than Conversations with Friends, even if it isn’t a resurrected earlier project. Its slightly awkward time scheme, with artificial forward jumps perhaps transforming a more linear narrative, looks like a classic example of that common phenomenon, the rewrite that spawns a few new problems of its own. Either way, it’s an eccentric decision to follow up a triumph with a mere success.
In some ways, Sally Rooney’s magnificent, painful, Man Booker-longlisted second novel, the follow-up to her acclaimed debut Conversations with Friends, is a meditation on power: the way that beauty, intelligence and class are currencies that fluctuate as unpredictably as pounds and dollars. Then again, it’s also about love and violence, about how damage is accrued and repaired.
Rooney takes her epigraph from Daniel Deronda, and it's worth comparing her to George Eliot. Both examine life seriously, while understanding the limits of detached analysis. Both are interested in how small acts can have far-reaching consequences. But Eliot can create a whole world, thrumming with connections. Normal People feels narrower than it wants to be. If Rooney scales up a bit, looks beyond her central characters, she could do really great things. And I've got a feeling she will.
Essentially Normal People is the classic "will they, won't they?" but teased out with enough wit, self-awareness and phenomenal assurance in the writing to feel utterly new. Both Connell and Marianne are traumatised people.
Connell, the conformist, has never known his father and while close to his mother is infuriatingly passive and casually cruel at times. Rooney cleverly depicts Marianne's trauma as more overt, while remaining undefined - a device that brilliantly underscores the insidious nature of abuse when it ventures beyond the acts of violence that most often characterise it.
The wider world of the novel very much recalls that of Conversations With Friends - Trinity alums might feel a little too seen in these pages, full of parties where middle-class Marxists mingle and the posturing is off the charts. The other world is that which evolves between Connell and Marianne - the claustrophobic solitude of two people in love - or, at least, enmeshed.
Rooney is such a gifted, brave, adventurous writer, so exceptionally good at observing the lies people tell themselves on the deepest level, in noting how much we forgive, and above all in portraying love...Normal People may not be about being young right now, but better than that, it shows what it is to be young and in love at any time. It may not be absolutely contemporary, but it is a future classic.
Normal People takes those themes of passivity and hurt and makes them radical and amazing. There is an amount of sex in the book and the sensibility is entirely contemporary, but there is no hint of modernism here. Normal People has the engine of a 19th century novel; there is an encompassing sense of authority in the voice that makes it more terrible when the characters lives start to slip away from them. The book grows up under your eyes: it is so much wiser and more moral than you thought it would be.
Longlisted for the Booker Prize... Normal People is a more daring book, unafraid to enter the darker corners of the psyche. Where Conversations gets under your skin, this hits you deep in the marrow, and the result is quite astonishing...Rooney excels in writing characters who stand askance from life. She writes anguish like nobody can. There’s nothing normal about Rooney. She’s exceptional.
This is a beautiful novel with a deep and satisfying intelligence at its heart. It’s emotionally and sexually admirably frank (Marianne’s masochistic streak takes her down some dark paths), but also kind and wise, witty and warm. In the end, a little like Rooney’s first book, it’s a sympathetic yet pithy examination of the myriad ways in which men and women try – and all too often fail – to understand each other.
Rooney pays commendable attention to the difficult reality of our late teens and early twenties. But it’s hard not to feel that the gravitas lent to Marianne’s vulnerable character by the truncated history of familial abuse repeats a mechanism from Conversations, where self-harming Frances struggles with her alcoholic father and carries that trauma over into her love life... Finally (and such is my enthusiasm for Rooney that I wanted to avert my gaze whenever this happened) the new book confirms that she struggles with description. There are the clunks and clichés: “her legs stretched out in front of her like a rag doll”; “her body was all soft and white like flour dough”.
Her astonishing debut Conversations with Friends was a Book of the Month in June 2017, and one of the best novels, let alone dbuts, I read last year. Rooney went on to win the Sunday Times/PFD Young Writer of the Year Award. Connell and Marianne are teenagers at the same school in a small town in rural Ireland, but worlds apart socially. A relationship begins, but is kept secret. The novel follows them to Trinity College, Dublin and beyond and charts the effect one person can have on another person's life. Beautifully observed and profoundly moving, I could scale new heights of hyperbole trying to describe how good this book is, but really, you just need to read it.