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Normal People, Sally Rooney: Older Brother, Daniel Mella

The great expectations Jane Graham had for Sally Rooney’s second novel are justified by an insightful depiction of an alluring odd couple

In the throbbing nightclub of prodigious young Irish writers, Sally Rooney is the disco-ball.  The 27 year old’s debut novel, Conversations with Friends, secured her an immediate fanbase and attracted raves from the likes of Zadie Smith and Curtis Sittenfeld. Her follow-up, Normal People, has gone straight on to the Booker longlist. Rooney, it appears, has not suffered from difficult second book syndrome.

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Normal People is a coming of age novel, following the relationship between wealthy Marianne and her charismatic schoolmate Connell, whose mother cleans Marianne’s house. The two grow up together in the small town of Carricklea, where handsome, cool and clever Connell is A-list popular and awkward, reclusive Marianne is a social disaster. A tentative romance grows between them, kept secret due to Connell’s concern about its knock-on affect on his status. When they meet again later at Trinity university, the newly elegant and self-assured Marianne is the one with standing, while Connell has lost the big fish in a small pond identity he once enjoyed. 

Rooney’s unsensational prose captures exactly the agonies and almost hallucinogenic bursts of joy that young love brings

In just two sure-footed novels, Rooney has become a master at using simple language and economic sentences to depict complex, constantly evolving characters and circumstances. There is also a creeping darkness in her novels, which occasionally erupts to shocking, blood-freezing effect.

She is still fascinated by the things she explored in Conversations with Friends – shifting power balances within relationships, social status, and most of all, the workings of the anxious, conscientious, self-fixated generation she belongs to. Marianne and Connell relentlessly interrogate themselves; am I a good person? Do other people like me and should I care? What kind of people am I attracted to, and what do my choices say about me? How much is all this mess my fault? Why can’t I breathe?

This might sound like indulgent naval-gazing (I hate to break it Sally, I fear this isn’t one for ‘snowflake’-hater Piers Morgan). But the truth is, Rooney has – to put it in modern parlance – nailed the character of today’s adolescents and twentysomethings.

Her dialogue, mostly in an authentic Galway brogue, is pitch perfect. She’s often funny, not because she’s striving to be witty, but because real people are often unintentionally funny (Connell would feel ‘a complete prick’ in the waxed hunting jacket & plum coloured chinos sported by his peers). Her unsensational prose, variously reminiscent of Elena Ferrante, David Nicholls and SE Hinton, captures exactly the agonies and almost hallucinogenic bursts of joy that young love brings. And her descriptions of sex are as good as any you’ll read – tender, cautious, and highly sensual. Imagine if soft porn movies were written and directed by sensitive, thoughtful and romantically inclined women. Ah, if only.

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Older Brother is the fourth novel by Uruguay writer Daniel Mella, who has garnered a reputation for tackling dark, difficult issues in original, imaginative ways. It examines the volcanic impact of the sudden death of beloved son and brother Alejandro on his devastated family, and, through the lively inner monologue of Alejandro’s older brother, encourages us to consider death from a number of angles; personal, communal, spiritual and ritualistic.

Mella is an ambitious intellectual, drawn to big themes like grief, love, nihilism, and both individual and social violence. Thus Older Brother is as much a philosophical think-piece as it is an absorbing, often touching tale of fear and loss. But do not be daunted, this is a truly rewarding read, rich with insight, humanity and a stirring beauty.

Normal People, Sally Rooney (Faber & Faber, £14.99)

Older Brother, Daniel Mella (Charco Press, £11.99)

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