ISBN 9780571334650 Format Paperback

Published 02/05/2019 Length 288 pages

Sally Rooney’s second novel Normal People (recently published in paperback) has drawn a great deal of praise being suggested as a “future classic” for its zeitgeisty insights into the relationships and internal lives of “Generation Z”. One of the reasons this book struck me deeply was because it seems to speak to some of the situations I have observed in young people I encounter as a university lecturer. Anyone who has spent much time with people in their late teens and early 20s in recent years will have identified what statistics have confirmed; that mental health problems are on the rise for this group. Depression and social anxiety are the problems which I have encountered in students most frequently are central to Normal People.

At the start of the novel, Marianne is a socially isolated teenager from a wealthy and abusive family who starts a secretive relationship with the much poorer but more popular Connell. They are not open about their relationship and never refer to each other as boyfriend/girlfriend due to the perceived social stigma Connell would encounter at school for being associated with the “weird” Marianne. The latter accepts this with little concern but as the narrative unfolds we realise despite her confidence and independence she has a hidden need to be controlled ultimately manifesting as a form of psychosexual masochism.

Connell, on the other hand, although popular due to his easy-going demeanour, good looks and sporting prowess often feels more alienated than her. The narrative drops into and out of their lives every few months over the next several years as they progress from school to university in Dublin. Here their positions in the social hierarchy switch with Marianne’s wealth and aloof demeanour providing her with a kind of allure to the materialistic and acutely class-conscious students of Trinity College. The transition is much more difficult for Connell who becomes more acutely aware of his social class position in the rarefied air of the university and starts to suffer from serious anxiety and depression.

To put this in context, the mental health of students has drawn a lot of attention with recent cases such as Natasha Abrahart, a Bristol University student who took her life in 2018. The coroner criticised the local NHS trust for not implementing a sufficient care plan and Natasha’s parents also apportioned blame to the university for failing to put in place reasonable adjustments to the standard examinations on her course. While such adjustments should, of course, be made, university staff are often ill-equipped to deal with the complex problems many young people face.

Connell’s fictional story is not as tragic as Natasha’s but it did make me think of the inadequacy of what can be offered to people experiencing these kinds of mental anguish. Rooney situates Connell’s experience within the context of social, cultural and economic inequality and his attempts to navigate class differences. Connell expected university life to be filled with stimulating seminar discussions followed by political debates over dinner. Instead, he encounters fellow students abstractly and eloquently pontificating on books they clearly haven’t read followed by parties filled with vacuous class snobbery. Late in the story, he accesses the university counselling service after learning that a now distant schoolfriend took his own life. He visits one of the university’s counsellors but what can be offered is ultimately limited as what he needs is a real human connection. Even this limited help is now being scaled back by some universities who are outsourcing their counselling services to local NHS commissioned services. The previously employed trained counsellors are being replaced by much less specialised and more general “wellbeing services”. Such services are cheaper and represent lower risk for the universities who can be distanced from responsibility for the most difficult issues.

The causes of anxiety and depression in young people are no doubt myriad but my anecdotal experience with students suggests that the kind of ontological insecurity experienced by the characters in Normal People is common. Some young people might, like Connell, feel a certain dissatisfaction with their school lives prior to university but did at least feel embedded within a community. As Connell tells his counsellor:

“You know, I thought I might find more like-minded people or whatever. But honestly, the people here are a lot worse than the people I knew in school. I mean everyone here just goes around comparing how much money their parents make”.

It is easy to feel dis-embedded when transitioning to university but philosophy and sociology have long taught us that it is through relationships with others that we perceive the world to be meaningful and our lives to be worthwhile. Transactional relationships based on money, control and status don’t really cut it.

Young people leaving home for the first time have always experienced these kinds of problems, but this is exacerbated now by the precarious, debt-ridden situation many are in. The average debt for UK graduates is now over £50,000 and although graduate unemployment is low this is partly skewed by the expansion of access to postgraduate study through easier access to loans (further increasing indebtedness). The high levels of employment in the economy at large mask the huge increase in precarious employment and the “gig economy”. The stress and insecurity of this kind of work have also been connected to mental health problems and the UN’s top health envoy has asserted that austerity, inequality, and discrimination are bigger drivers of mental health problems than individual factors.

Connell is affected by these kinds of worries which are invisible to the much more privileged Marianne who benefits from the private safety net of her family wealth. Cruelly she is one of the few people with whom he feels the kind of connection he needs but money and class keep getting in the way.  At the start of one summer, Connell realises he can’t afford to stay in Dublin over the University break and hints to Marianne that he would like to stay with her (in her well-appointed flat paid for by her family) but does so in such an indirect way that she thinks he is rejecting her.

She does, however, use her money and status to help him at other times in the story and he uses his social and physical attributes to help her when she is abused and threatened by (male) family and boyfriends. As Rooney narrates in the final paragraph of the novel “They’ve done a lot of good for each other. Really, she thinks, really. People can really change one another”. The novel is lightly subversive of the exaggerated individual agency which has been intrinsic to the novel as a literary form developing in the context of ‘the rise of individualism’ in the 18th century. The triumph of the characters is that they manage to help one another against the grain of the isolating and individualising drives of contemporary, class-ridden, capitalist society. It is only this connection which saves both of them from misery and abuse.