Bernard O'Keeffe's Reviews > Normal People

Normal People by Sally Rooney
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did not like it

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.’

What?

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 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's voice at the back of the crowd politely suggesting that the emperor might not be wearing any clothes.
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Reading Progress

Finished Reading
September 4, 2018 – Shelved

Comments Showing 1-39 of 39 (39 new)

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message 1: by Graeme (new)

Graeme Pearce yep. and the present tense irritates me too!


message 2: by Oni (new) - rated it 2 stars

Oni "Or it could be that I'm the child's voice at the back of the crowd politely suggesting that the emperor might not be wearing any clothes." Perfect line and great review!


message 3: by Deb (new) - rated it 3 stars

Deb I agree with a lot of what you have written. I too struggled with convoluted sentences and injected, unnecessary words, that at times made no sense. I was pleased to know I wasn't alone in my making of notes and highlighted texts, which mirror many of yours and I have included these in my review also.


Sheenagh Daly Great review. My sentiments exactly. I still can’t get my head around the critical acclaim for the novel. Felt zero empathy for these self-absorbed characters.


Danijela Jelicic Not only your problem. How on earth did this end up being Booker-longlisted?


Layne Oh my. Bernard, though I truly loved this book, your criticisms are valid and imagining you trying to exhale and inhale at the same time, depriving yourself oxygen, had me in stitches. 😂 Great review, even though I thought it was a terrific read.


message 7: by A (new) - added it

A Sara I just put this book on my reading list but your highlighted quotes made me shudder and I fear they will be forefront in my mind as I read. Will let you know how I get on!


Simon It's not really that hard, is it? Connell attempts to suppress a sigh but the attempt at suppression is itself audible, thereby defeating the purpose of the act. Whether the respiratory mechanics actually work as described is, I would suggest, immaterial. It would perhaps have been more accurate to have said that it "sounded like a suppressed sigh" but I personally think it is clear enough without the additional word.

I find the rest of your excerpts just as understandable:
- "performatively large" means its size was principally for the benefit of observers, rather than, say, a particularly exaggerated thirst on Peggy's part. It was larger than necessary.
- "seemingly spontaneously" means without even a hint of forewarning or intention on Alan's face. It might have been premeditated to some degree, hence "seemingly", but we only ever have access to Connell and Marianne's perspectives, I think. We see Alan as she does and she is entirely unable to understand his hostility toward her.
- "originary" is clearly intended to mean original or originating. It's obscure/archaic but it isn't unknown and I didn't find it difficult to parse.

If you read this book in pencil-in-hand teacher mode from page 2, I would think you were always likely to have struggled to enjoy it. It might well have still only merited one star, of course, but I think you would have been more likely to have been able to engage with it.


message 9: by Lucille (new) - added it

Lucille 'the prose shifts from past to present for no apparent reason and even within paragraphs, creating a chronological blur.' I hate when this happens it is so confusing for the reader and writing workshops insist this is not the way to tell a story. Rooney keeps winning prizes too. Haven't read it yet and maybe won't bother.


message 10: by Bex (new)

Bex Rees Best review ever!I laughed so much I was worried I was going to wake the kids up.Actual tears!!I too tried the suppressing/inhalation! Unfortunately this is my book club book so I am going to have to read this


message 11: by Henry (new) - rated it 1 star

Henry fantastic review! The book made me pretty hate everyone under 40 with their mating apps!


Hildegarde https://www.merriam-webster.com/dicti...
Originary: obsolete or source/cause... not the best word choice I guess (you were right) .
I also thought that it sounded strange


message 13: by janetandjohn (new)

janetandjohn Thank you..... I need never read this now; I do wonder sometimes who does the editing these days. I know it wouldn't have got past the late great Diana Athill under any circumstances.


Nicole A I agree.


message 15: by Deborah (new)

Deborah I loved this style of writing. It was in keeping with the two main characters - disordered, complex, unfathomable and ambitious. The writing style mirrored the story.


Susan How pedantic. And I had no trouble with the bits you quoted. They take no mental gymnastics whatsoever. Maybe I'm just more open to a younger narrative voice than you are. The book reads the way many teens/early-twenties speak today.


Susan How pedantic. And I had no trouble with the bits you quoted. They take no mental gymnastics whatsoever. Maybe I'm just more open to a younger narrative voice than you are. The book reads the way many teens/early-twenties speak today.


Michael Macleod When you go into a book with every intention of disliking it and picking apart all its flaws, it's no wonder you didn't like it. I will never understand people who read and review a book with the express intention of not liking it, even before you have any real knowledge of the book itself.


message 19: by Nick (new) - rated it 5 stars

Nick *Performatively criticises*


message 20: by Tess (new) - added it

Tess Nick Petty I nearly spat out my drink. "Or it could be that I'm the child's voice at the back of the crowd politely suggesting that the emperor might not be wearing any clothes" is certainly a teensy bit performative!


Susan Nick, Bravo! 👏


message 22: by FJ (new)

FJ This. ‘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 laughed so hard because I reread this paragraph at least four times, thinking that it was my problem or that I didn't understand how this worked. Glad to know I am not the only one.


message 23: by Rhonda (new) - added it

Rhonda Zollars This review made me happier than the book has so far. Instantly on page one the lack of proper punctuation started to make me insane. I had to look through reviews. I started questioning my sanity as overall it seems very well received. I am still trying to read it but I don’t know how far I will get. Everything already feels like it’s just blurred together.


Kerri Rifkin That review felt nitpicky as hell. I enjoyed her prose. I just think that you had a red pen out for the whole read. I agree with Susan and Simon.


Samantha Freeman Awful book. Please read Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger or Lord or The Great Gatsby by F.Scot Fitzgerald and come back and say this book will in years to come be a classic as some people have speculated. I am depressed that this is what is now passing for great literature. Milkman which won the Man Booker prize was a million times better on so many levels. Can not believe this was even longlisted.


message 26: by Kym (new) - rated it 1 star

Kym White You are not the only one. Don’t get the hype about this book. Could not finish it. Life is too short.


Michael He. Funny that you mention the whole sighing not sighing. I actually thought it was well written and knew exactly what she was hinting at.


message 28: by Candace (new) - added it

Candace I'm still going to try and read this, but I loved this review. Let's hope I love the book as much.


Ashley Ruck I took ‘performatively large’ to mean an over exaggerated swig from the bottle, purely for show.


message 30: by Kelly (new) - rated it 1 star

Kelly Great review! Your last line hit the nail on the head. Thank you.


message 31: by Matt (new) - rated it 2 stars

Matt Rodbard Review here is way more entertaining than this sloppy and depressing read


message 32: by Ruth (new) - rated it 2 stars

Ruth Loved your review. If I ever get to the stage when my manuscript needs the pencil of a stern editor, can I send it to you?


Bernard O'Keeffe Ruth wrote: "Loved your review. If I ever get to the stage when my manuscript needs the pencil of a stern editor, can I send it to you?"

Please do. And if you enjoyed the review you might like these -

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/4...

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/1...


message 34: by Alex (new)

Alex Platt Incredibly pedantic. How do you expect to enjoy a book if you're sitting there pencil-in-hand actively looking for mistakes to 'mark'? Grow up.


message 35: by Erica (new) - added it

Erica Just a comment on the sighing bit. The Irish (native) do this thing that sounds like a sigh/gasp that seems to fit the description in the book of a suppressed sigh. It’s often used when reacting to a sad or surprising thing.


message 36: by Pimi (new) - rated it 5 stars

Pimi English is my second language and even I understood all those bits...


message 37: by Liese (new) - added it

Liese Schwarz Ashley wrote: "I took ‘performatively large’ to mean an over exaggerated swig from the bottle, purely for show."

I took it that way too. Good description!


message 38: by Louise (new) - added it

Louise I love this review more than the book. I wanted to love the book but couldn't because of the reasons you state. The characters were unlikeable and the writing was questionable at best.


lizzzzzzzzz almost died from laughing hahaha
love this review 10000 times than the book itself?


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