What I don’t get about Sally Rooney’s Normal People

On the second page of Sally Rooney’s universally acclaimed, Booker- longlisted novel is the following paragraph:

‘He puts his hands in his pockets and suppresses an irritable sigh, but suppresses it with an audible intake of breath, so that it still sounds like a sigh.’


I get the hand in the pockets bit, but how the hell does the rest of it work? A sigh is an exhalation and I have no idea how any attempt to suppress a sigh by inhaling could possibly sound like one. I’ve tried hard to imagine it, but no luck. I’ve tried even harder to do it, but even less luck. In fact, in an effort to understand this twaddle I have tried it so often that I have come close on several occasions to hyperventilating and passing out.

What have those Faber editors been doing? Maybe they have no problem with it because they are all so much cleverer than me and know how to read properly. Or maybe they also tried to do it and actually did pass out, which might explain why they have failed to apply the editorial pencil with any intelligence in the 264 pages that follow.

The more likely explanation, of course, is that the problem is mine – and I offer the following gems from Normal People on that understanding…

  • ‘He looks down into his lap, and exhales quickly, almost like a cough’

It’s hyperventilation time again. I’ve imagined it and I’ve tried it, but I still don’t get it.

  • ‘He can’t even visually imagine himself as a lawyer, wearing a tie and so on..’

Do we really need that ‘visually’?

  • ‘It’s true she is Connell’s type, maybe even the originary model of the type:’

Originary? What does that mean? Am I the only one who had to look it up? (It’s not in Chambers, by the way, so you’ll need the OED)

  • ‘Peggy, watching, took a performatively large mouthful of Cointreau…’

Can anyone explain what ‘performatively large’ actually means?

  • ‘Enraged now, Alan wrenched her back from the sink by her upper arm, and, seemingly spontaneously, spat at her.’

Seemingly spontaneously?

I could go on. It’s not often that I feel the need to read with a pencil in my hand but Normal People drove me to it, and my copy is now covered with question marks and annotations. I retired from teaching last year but reading Sally Rooney’s feted novel felt like I was marking again – in this case marking the work of a precocious, but overindulged, talent.

In ‘Normal People’ alternating points of view are combined with an inconsistent and confusing authorial presence, voices are often difficult to differentiate in an ineffectual free indirect style, the comma splices (Ferrante this isn’t) and the unpunctuated dialogue, far from creating an impressionistic flow, suggest a lack of precision, and the prose shifts from past to present for no apparent reason and even within paragraphs, creating a chronological blur. In short, it’s a bit of a mess.

If I cared about the characters or cared about the story, these things would not matter quite so much but on the few occasions when I saw through the writerly mess I found it difficult to care about them at all.

The novel, though, has been so well received that its very reception has become a news story. ‘Salinger for the Snapchat generation’: critics unite to praise 27 year-old novelist’ was the headline in last Saturday’s Guardian.

So the problem is clearly mine.

Maybe I’ve read a different book from the one everyone else is raving about. Maybe I’ve read the same book but don’t know how to read properly. Or it could be that I’m the child at the back of the crowd politely suggesting that the emperor might not be wearing any clothes.