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.’

Book Review | Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney

Frances is a university student in her early twenties. She performs spoken-word poetry around Dublin with her gregarious ex-girlfriend Bobbi. She’s a self-described communist and vaguely thinks of herself as anti-establishment, but she freely admits that she’s not really sure of herself: ‘At any time I felt I could do or say anything at all, and only afterward think: oh, so that’s the kind of person I am,’ she remarks. It’s quite a startling disassociation from herself. But more on that later.

Frances and Bobbi meet glamorous older couple Melissa and Nick ­– Nick is a moderately successful actor and Melissa an artist. Drawn into their orbit, Bobbi becomes infatuated with Melissa and Frances and Nick begin a romantic relationship. “We can sleep together if you want,” Frances tells Nick, “but you should know I’m only doing it ironically.”

Frances’s passivity and detachment create her belief that she is impervious to the behaviour of others, and they in turn are impervious to the harm she inflicts upon them. And I don’t even think this is self-conscious, but her casual cruelty to the outside world is in sharp contrast to the pain she herself feels in moments of rejection, and the physical pain she inflicts upon herself in almost reflexive moments of self-harm.

‘At times I thought this was the worst misery I had experienced in my life, but it was also a very shallow misery, which at any time could have been relieved completely by a word from him and transformed into idiotic happiness.’

I think Sally Rooney delights in creating complicated and not necessarily likeable characters, but still manages to craft them in an empathetic way. In Normal People, I felt that there was a character arc, with conflict, growth and resolution for Marianne and Connell. I struggled to find the same to say about our protagonists in Conversations with Friends, whose near-total narcissism and insularity is steadfast throughout the narrative. I did empathise with the characters – they were cleverly drawn, complex humans – but I expected more of them, a greater self-realisation beyond the bounds of social and material concerns. I think the novel has something to say – about infidelity and youth and the modern condition – but doesn’t quite say enough about any of it.

A redeeming factor is Rooney’s writing; she writes with such effortless cadence and acuity. She’s a master at depicting social situations and all the unspoken and quiet nuance of human interactions – holding a gaze for a moment too long, a hand on the back of a chair.

‘In bed we folded around each other like origami. It’s possible to feel so grateful that you can’t get to sleep at night.’

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Book Review | Normal People by Sally Rooney

Marianne is bookish, friendless, and impervious to the opinions of others. Connell is popular, athletic, and preoccupied with his public perception in their small West Ireland town and amongst their other sixth-form classmates. On paper, they’re an unlikely pairing, but there’s an undeniable magnetism that pulls them together.

After school ends, when they find themselves together at Trinity College, Dublin, their dynamic has shifted. It is no longer Connell in the driving seat: he is now the adrift loner and Marianne is the centre of gravity, encircled with friends and admirers. The novel tenderly charts the course of their fluctuating relationship over the next four years.

‘It’s funny the decisions you make because you like someone, he says, and then your whole life is different. I think we’re at that weird age where life can change a lot from small decisions.’

There was that particular kind of millennial angst conveyed through their story, explored in an open way that didn’t feel clichéd. Perhaps this resonated so well because Sally Rooney and I are the same age and her characters were at university the exact same years as I was. There are the insufferable fellow students at Trinity, those who, like Marianne’s boyfriend Jamie, manage to be ‘both boring and hostile at the same time’, prone to bouts of pseudo-intellectualism over too many glasses of pinot. But everyone is desperate to find their place and their people over the course of the three years, whilst also worrying about the vast stretch of time that comes ‘after.’ And at the heart of it all are the oscillating dynamics of Marianne and Connell’s relationship, where class, privilege and power come into play as they navigate the new territory of their intimacy.

‘It was culture as class performance, literature fetishised for its ability to take educated people on false emotional journeys, so that they might afterwards feel superior to the uneducated people whose emotional journeys they liked to read about.’

With deftness of touch, Rooney explores the inner workings of our two protagonists, giving the reader a window to everything that goes unsaid, to the missed connections and miscommunications that befall their relationship. Her style is sparse and well-controlled, building a scene through layers of what is both spoken and unspoken, with tiny shifts in the atmosphere subtly and brilliantly evoked.

‘Outside her breath rises in a fine mist and the snow keeps falling, like a ceaseless repetition of the same infinitesimally small mistake.’

It’s an utterly absorbing read, exploring a well-worn trajectory of first love through a fresh new voice. It’s also a novel that takes us to darker places, and doesn’t shy away from talking frankly about mental health, abuse, and recovery. It isn’t all plain sailing by any means, but, as the novel reflects, ‘life offers up these moments of joy despite everything.’

****

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Read if you enjoyed: One Day by David Nicholls, Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid, The Versions of Us by Laura Barnett