Sally Rooney: the way you might look at her

With the TV adaptation of Sally Rooney’s Normal People co-directed by the Oscar-nominated Lenny Abrahamson being shown on the BBC and RTE, John Fanning looks at the prejudices of an author far wiser than her years


In a recent issue of the New Yorker weekly magazine, book publisher Heinemann ran an ad on the outside back for one of its authors; Sally Rooney. Over half the ad was a collection of quotes from ecstatic reviews of her second novel; Normal People, from seven prestigious American publications. The remainder of the ad listed the number of literary prizes Rooney had either won or been shortlisted for under the heading; The Literary Event of 2019.

Still a year short of 30, her two novels published in quick succession have established her as a literary phenomenon earning extraordinary levels of praise; “the JD Salinger of the Snapchat generation”, “a totemic novelist for the millennial generation”, “the Jane Austin of the precariat” and “carrying a Sally Rooney book is the new Instagram status symbol”.

‘There’s an effortlessness about Sally Rooney’s writing, as if the stories simply pour through her like liquid gold’ – Independent in the UK

Her reputation is likely to be further enhanced with the BBC’s 12-part adaptation of her love story, Normal People. Given the high proportion of marketing communications aimed at 20 to 35-year-olds, it is worth examining whether these novels can help us understand this cohort better. Both books revolve around the contemporary lives of Trinity students.

When Normal People was released in 2018, the novel sold over 500,000 copies in the UK alone, was adapted to 25 languages and won several awards. It was longlisted for the 2018 Man Booker Prize and was voted as Waterstones’ Book of the Year. It won best novel at the Costa Book Awards and last year was longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction.

It was ranked 25th on the Guardian list of the 100 best books of the 21st century.

In Conversations with Friends (2017) the two main characters, Francis and Bobbi, are females in their early 20’s who are drawn into a relationship with an older relatively wealthy couple. Normal People charts the on-off romance between Marianne and Connell from their days as classmates in Sligo through their student lives and beyond.

The transition from teenager to adult has always been hard but Rooney’s work suggests that today’s generation face two new challenges. Firstly, the growth of social media. Shakespeare wrote 400 years ago that “all the men and women were merely players” but social media has provided starring roles and a constant need to perform creates inevitable tensions.


Continual e-mailing and texting add to a sense of insecurity and Rooney’s characters have to confront the issue of detailed, often intimate, texting into the small hours and then having to meet the receiver in person the next day. The second problem is about this being the first generation in living memory that does not expect to exceed their parents’ standard of living.

The shadow of the 2008 recession lies heavy in both novels and none of the main characters have any great expectations of secure, well-paid employment. They seem resigned to this fate and regularly make comments about overthrowing the system but their professions of Marxism lack any conviction.

What Rooney may be reflecting is that unlike most economists and political commentators the millennials have not forgotten the 2008 recession and that although they have no concrete proposals for averting its recurrence they have moved significantly to the political left, though not necessarily in a party political sense.

The final point to note is that all four of the main characters come from broken homes. This is particularly significant from an Irish perspective because it was only in the last decades of the 20th century and the early 21st century that contraception, divorce and abortion were legalised so that although marriage breakdown was always a feature of married life it was only relatively recently that re-marriage was a practical proposition.

There’s also the perennial problem young people have to come to terms with; class consciousness. But shure we’re not like the Brits, I hear you say; oh yes we are: we’re riddled with it. It is a subject that’s never far from the surface in both of Rooney’s novels but Irish readers so adept at denying its existence here may not even notice.


Taken together, these factors point to an unusually troubled generation exemplified by an alarming level of self-harm in both novels and, in spite of their privileged education, the main characters are either dismissive or unconcerned about career prospects. Perhaps they are unconsciously aware of Silicon Valley’s view of homo sapiens as an obsolete algorithm; what’s the point about worrying about jobs if there aren’t going to be any?

Perhaps they are starting to realise that our shiny new tech tools are not value-neutral? There are repeated references to what exactly a ‘normal person’ is in both of Rooney’s books and it may be that there’s a conflict between the natural desire to fit in and the competing demands of social media to stand out. Social media forces the individual onto the stage but maybe most ‘normal people’ would prefer to reside more safely in the wings.

We always need to be careful fetishising one segment of the population compared to others but today’s 20-somethings have serious issues to contend with and to answer the question I posed at the outset of this essay, Sally Rooney’s unflinching portrayal of them is an invaluable resource for understanding their behaviour and attitudes.

Co-directed by Lenny Abrahamson (above) and Hettie Macdonald, the screen adaptation of Sally Rooney’s novel Normal People debuts on BBC Three this Sunday, April 26. It will also air on BBC One from Monday, April 27 at 9pm and on RTE One from 10.15pm the next day, with both channel’s showing weekly double episodes. The series is screened by Hulu in the US.

To watch an interview with Lenny Abrahamson, go to

John Fanning lectures on branding and marketing communications at the UCD Smurfit Graduate Business School;

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