This book damn near killed me.
And I’m still not quite sure what to say about it. On the surface the plot is simple; two people from different walks of life come together, don’t always communicate great and life ensues. The book is told in alternating chapters from Connell and Marianne’s perspective, jumping in time with each chapter. They meet as teenagers and start having sex and (maybe) falling in love. Connell feels like he is truly himself when Marianne is around. Marianne falls under his spell and will do anything he asks…until she doesn’t.
“Marianne had the sense that her real life was happening somewhere very far away, happening without her, and she didn’t know if she would ever find out where it was or become part of it.”
Normal people is written in a way that barely lets you breathe. It’s torture and as I read it I couldn’t wait to finish, but now that it’s done I find it lingering in my mind and I want to go back, pouring over the phrases again and again to extract meaning. It’s like an ex-partner and all your fights have been written down and you can go back again and again and pick them, and yourself, apart.
“If people appeared to behave pointlessly in grief, it was only because human life was pointless, and this was the truth that grief revealed”
But the message is not just that we carry our past traumas with us. This part is apparent in Connel who is poor and desperate to belong, yet afraid to do so. He loves Marianne because she is aspirational and because he loves her. He loves Helen because she is aspirational in being good and uncomplicated, but also because he loves her. Marianne also carries her past trauma and enacts them, deepens them and explores them with other people. Connell and Marianne both make so many mistakes and neither of them are necessarily someone you’d dream in ending up with. I absolutely hated Connell many times throughout this book, despising his selfish way of loving people. And I couldn’t quite feel sorry for Marianne, because she clings onto her trauma so desperately.
“Life is the thing you bring with you inside your own head.”
The book spends quite a lot of time exploring trauma and healing and not commenting much on it. For the reader the solution is painfully obvious, we are privy to not just every he-said-she-said, but everything they think as well, and all the unsaids that keep complicating things.
“You learn nothing very profound about yourself simply by being bullied; but by bullying someone else you learn something you can never forget.”
But Normal People is more than that, it’s also about how people can heal other people when you’re ready to see them for what they are. And that’s why it stays with you. Every sentence can be read with deeper meaning, with both sorrow and joy. They really do try, Connell and Marianne, but they don’t quite make it, and then sometimes they do – just like normal people.