• Amy Lee Tempest

About Normal People

I have a website and with that website is the option of a free blog. I was told at various self employment advice events that I should utilise this blog as free self promotion tool. Talk about myself. Show off. Entice. Maybe offer discounts for limited times only. But nobody reads blogs anymore and it’s more hassle than it’s worth. It’s just more unpaid work. So, no thanks, I won’t be spending my spare time blogging for prospective clients/ publishers/ whatevers…

Well, here is my first blog post.

It’s here because of a book. A book called ‘Normal People’ by Sally Rooney (2018) that I finished about 20 minutes ago. I wanted to write about this book to say hey, you should read this book, too. This is a good book! So, I could stop here, I suppose. Job done. But no, I want to tell you why it’s a good book, cos that’s what good books do to us. They make us talk about them. Share stuff. Feel.

Some guy wrote that reading is like breathing in, and writing is like breathing out. Well, this is my appreciative sigh, then. Or a little strangled scream. (I'm not going to reference that guy. I'm doing this from memory.)

I’ll call it a book review. But one where I don’t ruin the plot for you. Much.

The book is a bestselling contemporary coming of age tale covered in newspaper, magazine and other author’s endorsements. They all think it’s a good book. (They were also possibly paid or bribed by the publishing house to say this. Sadly, I was not.) But the problem with that is this book was on a shelf with many other books with similar best seller stamps and media endorsements. It was a difficult choice. A confusing time. WH Smith’s sale rack blew my mind.

I picked this one simply cos the cover was orange and minimal and so would match my living room’s aesthetic if I casually left it on the armchair, it was part of the buy one get one free sale, and I wanted to quickly spend my Christmas book voucher, leave and then get on with my life. (i.e. go to Greggs for a pasty.)

I don’t usually read contemporary novels, especially coming of age ones, because they often make me lol for the wrong reasons. And sometimes they disappoint me. Frustrate me, even. (That ‘Eleanor’ one had me raging for days.) Especially when it comes to the presentation of class/gender/sexuality/race/mental health issues within a clumsily assembled stereotypical main character. The characters are usually portrayed as quirky whereby quirky for a woman is a blunt fringe/ red lipstick and cigarette, and quirky for a man is curly hair, nervous eyes, and a vague appreciation of some kind of art (probably poetry). However, their quirks are more than cute idiosyncrasies when they start to take on real world struggles. They become things that make them outsider or other; separated from the normal people who always live around the edges of a book in this genre. (Ooooo, edgy!) It no longer feels okay to be whimsical about it. Yet, going too serious seems contrived. Someplace in the middle is a rare find.

(I found it in this book!)

The plot is usually along the same lines of outsider meets insider. Insider cures outsider’s deep rooted issues by simply accepting them and welcoming them into the insider group. This never feels real. It’s naïve. Because really, outsiders often don’t want to be on the inside of a social group that harms them. We want societal change on a structural level or psychological change/ self betterment found through years of persistent struggle. Fiction often undermines this by selling us the idea that if we are all just nice to those that are different (and perhaps just consider them quirky) everything will be okay. And if quirky people just be a bit more confident (i.e. a bit more normal) things will be okay. It can all get sorted out in the last chapter or two.

Too simple. Too easy. A hurtful lie.

Yes, its fiction, yes its just entertainment, but I feel a bit icky when a sensitive or important subject is treated as a simple plaything for a writer. Or even worse, a quirky selling point to a publisher as subverting the norms. Or never meaningfully expanded on to a satisfying conversation or set of considerations.

The norms are hardly ever really subverted. The presentation of characters outer behaviour /appearance/ identity may change (i.e. lets have a lesbian love story! How…subversive! So…quirky! One can wear a beret and the other could wear red lipstick! Weird outsiders!) but the inner motivations/ plot devices/ commentary/ conclusions don’t change so much. Everything still remains pleasantly okay. Absolutely fine. When real life shows us differently sometimes. In real life, things don’t always change in a linear plot, but we find ourselves trapped in maddening circles.

(This book has a linear plot but it also circles and patterns emerge!)

So yes, ‘Normal People’ is another outsider meets insider story. Quirky meets normie. Then they do a switch. Of course they do! But the author seems very aware that her characters are moving within this trope and plays with it several times. We are shown the outside and inside of both of the main characters and of course, those things don't match. Our inner and outer worlds are often different which can cause conflict within our selves and a reconciliation between them both is something many of us crave. The most interesting part of the book for me was witnessing the characters attempts to navigate the differences between their inner and outer selves as they grow.

There’s lots of prettified language, similes and metaphors, and scene settings that don’t contribute to the story or reading experience much at all except drag it slowly on over hundreds of pages. (This is why I prefer poetry, I’m impatient, poetry arrives at the point quicker). The writer keeps the reader updated on the exact shade of blue the sky is at almost every opportunity, for example. Apparently, a sky can look like denim. Where? What sky? I've never seen a denim sky!

The first line is boring. The first paragraph is dull. The first chapter tells me that the characters are going to spend the rest of the book sweating, touching their faces a lot, and with burning, watery eyes. Because that’s what quirky characters with mental health issues do according to a quick look at anxiety symptoms in the DSM – IV – PC.

(The characters do much more than this!)

Of course there is a sensitive working class male character. Of course there is an opinionated and sexual female character. And absolutely of course one of them is a writer and the author manages to hide a self conscious critique of literature and ponder the virtues of being a writer in the story through them. Because contemporary coming of age tales are being subversive. Controversial. Metaphysical. Ironic. But in a very safe and predictable way.

(This book is not a safe!)

Do I sound unnecessarily dismissive, critical, disinterested? Like if I was in a book I’d be smoking a cigarette and rolling my eyes? It’s because I’ve been disappointed with all of this symptom signalling in characters behaviour before because I don’t think people with mental health issues move their way through life sweating and trembling as much as these types of characters do. Having trained and worked in the area of mental health, I am saddened to think of the representation of mental health issues in literature as being so shallow, used as entertainment, many people’s paycheck and pats on the backs for being ‘brave’ to ‘tackle’ such a ‘difficult’ subjects.

(The book is brave. The subjects tackled are difficult!)

But I still want you to read this book. All of the above opinion was formulated within my reading of the first couple of chapters. The rest of the book subtly takes us somewhere deeper. Somewhere much more interesting, illuminating and complex. My manic pixie dream girl persona shut up after that and it became a beautiful, albeit, painful read. I am glad it wasn’t a poem. I am glad the writer showed me the colour of the sky, what fruit was on the trees, and the way a breeze moved through leaves, because I sometimes needed that space to breath and think about the nuances of the characters and plot. She slowly, slowly let me fall in love with two characters to where I am saying ‘please let them be okay’ at the end of each chapter. I am even more glad I am left muttering it after I’ve finished the book. Let them be okay. The writer keeps the novel so realistic that it doesn’t end on the last page.

The story manages to tip toe us through mental health issues, grief, domestic violence, class issues, social hierarchy’s in friendship groups, place, belonging and identity, politics and ideas on social justice, alcohol and drugs, BDSM, and a range of difficult human emotions such a jealousy, betrayal, hurt, and desire for power/ control. All whilst two teens attempt to step into adulthood together. This provides lots of subtle social commentary, the most pleasing of which for me were around the issues that I related to the most when reading it – a relationship between a working class single parent and son. It also provides lots of opportunity for introspection on psychology with what I saw as links to Jungian’s shadow self theories. There is plenty of room for exploration on existential nihilism, too. Both of these fitting with the teenage torments of ‘I just want to be normal’, ‘who am I and why do I do what I do’ and ‘what even is the point of anything anyway?’.

Yet still, all of that takes a shallow second place compared with the delicate dance between the two main characters over a span of the whole book. The dance is so light and on tip toes that it’s hard to see who’s foot was out of place and when. But both their feet our getting progressively bloodier. It highlights the chaos caused to a person’s soul over simple miscommunication between two people. Or their inability or refusal to understand the other if it threatens their own understanding of their self/ assumed fixed place in the world.

It reminds us that relationships are made of two people holding up broken mirrors to each other but still expecting to see the reflection of something whole. No, the reflection is going to be fragmented, unusual, confusing and at times ugly.

I wanted them to fix their mirrors. Or make mosaics out of their broken shards and create something beautiful. But first they had to look. Really, really look, and accept what they saw.

And don’t we all?

Treat this book as a delicate, little hand held mirror - the broken parts might prick your fingers when turning some pages.

If I could I would place it into my 14 year old son’s hands and say look, take your time and look, in this book is something important. I don’t know what that is exactly, I just know that there’s something in there. It’s probably different for everyone who looks in it. (But when I asked him to read it he said he would for £40 and a meal at Nandos. We’re still working out the terms and conditions for this deal.)

It reminded me of that cringe thing people sometimes say – there’s no such thing as normal. But we all still want it. We still know when things don't feel normal. When our normal changes. It reminded me also of a tutor who once said ‘If I ever met anyone who was normal, I’d call them a freak!’.

Broken mirrors can still reflect beauty. They aren’t always destined to give you bad luck. Instead of reaching for normal, we could maybe go for okay.

Please let them be okay.

But please don't let there be a sequel to this book. Let me wonder.