Beautiful World, Where Are You by Sally Rooney

Book Review | Beautiful World, Where Are You by Sally Rooney

I can’t even have the passing thought of the phrase ‘voice of a generation’ without wincing (thank you, Hannah Horvath in Lena Dunham’s Girls.)

My distaste for the expression aside, I’m struck by the way Sally Rooney captures our millennial anxieties, quite unlike anyone else (and believe me, I love a good millennial angst novel). The protagonists of Normal People were coming of age just after the 2008 recession, and here we see that same generation turning thirty and in the quagmire of how to live a life – a good, meaningful life – in the face of oblivion. Selfishly, I hope she never stops being that voice as our generation grows up and old.

‘Is this how it’s going to be for the rest of our lives? Time dissolving into thick dark fog, things that happened last week seeming years ago, and things that happened last year feeling like yesterday.’

So onto the plot: Alice is a successful writer who’s recovering from a breakdown. Felix is her tinder date with no interest in books. Eileen is Alice’s best friend and editor at a literary journal. And Simon is the boy Eileen has been sort of in love with since she was 15.

Rooney is a master at depicting modern human interaction and the subtleties of communication, from political sparring to comedic riffing to sex – everything is rendered with absolute precision. You can’t look away, even through the exquisite anguish of watching the characters trip up again and again.

There’s a humming anxiety, ever-present – both spoken and unspoken, knowable and unknowable. Is there anyone who doesn’t feel this undercurrent of fractious energy, particularly in our pandemic world? In an epistolary tradition, Alice and Eileen write each other long and winding emails and chew over the unsolvable problems of our contemporary existence –

‘I think of the twentieth century as one long question, and in the end we got the answer wrong. Aren’t we unfortunate babies to be born when the world ended? …We are standing in the last lighted room before the darkness, bearing witness to something.’

I partly felt let down by Conversations with Friends because it lacked something – I didn’t think it really knew what to say, and was full of half-formed ideas. I can’t fault Beautiful World, Where Are You on those grounds –  there is so much psychological insight, blended with political and social and environmental unease, explored in acute detail. Even if the ideas aren’t themselves new – and Rooney isn’t pretending they are – she presents them as raw and real and an inextricable part of our modern condition.

Maybe it’s an impossible task – to make sense of our present historical moment, to make sense of who we are and what we mean to each other. We don’t always like the characters – that feels like her trademark by this point – but we don’t have to always like them to be invested in and captivated by the way they navigate the world.

I think it’s her best work so far – intimate, expressive, unflinching. If you’re on the fence – I know hype to this degree can be offputting – I hope you give it a try.

‘And out the windows the sky was still dimming, darkening, the vast earth turning slowly on its axis.’

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

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Book Review | Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan

Ava is an adrift millennial; and I definitely feel like I’ve written that sentence before. What can I say; the millennial malaise makes for good writing (and reading) material.

So Ava is an adrift millennial in Hong Kong. She’s left Dublin behind, where she is convinced that no-one likes her and is determined in Hong Kong to not give anyone a chance to. She teaches grammar at a private language school where her bathroom breaks are monitored and restricted, and her wages barely afford her a room in a cockroach-infested apartment. I know, I know – it’s all a bit bleak.

‘I’d been sad in Dublin, decided it was Dublin’s fault, and thought Hong Kong would help.’

Ava meets banker Julian, an Oxford alum a few years older than her. Julian’s salary affords him a swanky two-bedroom apartment, and the two of them navigate the precarious waters of detachment while they simultaneously start sleeping together and Ava moves in with him – but stays confined to the spare bedroom.

‘Because I loved him—potentially. That, or I wanted to be him, or liked being someone to whom he assigned tasks. I’d had no livable spaces in Hong Kong until I met him, so possibly I just loved thinking in silence and breathing clean air—if that was a tenable distinction when I did so in his apartment.’

It’s an existence that Ava herself ‘can’t work up any enthusiasm over,’ and her sardonic and caustic (at one point, Julian calls Ava caustic and she revels in it) attitude, combined with an extensive amount of time in her head – and a hyper awareness of the minutiae of social dynamics and her place within them – doesn’t make for the easiest reading. It’s an odd experience to be so inside the head of a protagonist and yet kept at arm’s distance from her actual motivations. Look, I’m a millennial too – and I’ve been adrift! And yet the total dispassion with which Ava views her own life is taxing.

Then novel shines when Ava dissects language and speech mannerisms, which she does with wit and awareness. When she meets and falls in love with Hong Kong born and British-educated Edith, she notes that;

‘Her accent was churchy, high-up, with all the cathedral drops of English intonation. Button, water, Tuesday—anything with two syllables zipped up then down like a Gothic steeple. Three-syllable words spread out like the spokes on an umbrella: “attaches” became “a-tach-iss.” She said “completely” a lot and usually dropped the “t” in the middle. Besides school and uni, she hadn’t seen much of the UK.’

It’s through these dissections that Ava arrives at greater emotional insight, and perhaps it’s also unfair for me to label her totally dispassionate – politics and morality and religion and class and sexuality pepper the pages and shape her life and social interactions. I wished that Hong Kong could have been better brought to life instead of the myopic portrayal where it could have been any major Asian city, but I did enjoy Ava’s commentary on modern Irish sensibilities, the Irish relationship to the English, and particularly how this manifests itself in language. Even though it wasn’t all I’d hoped for, it is an accomplished debut, with whip smart social commentary.

‘The best wedges of words were the ones my eight-year-olds wrote: I like her face. With her I am happy. I wished I’d never learned more advanced grammar and could only make sentences like that. It would give me an excuse to say them aloud.’