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Normal People

It will come as no surprise to you to learn that I'm generally some way behind the curve when it comes to cultural talking points, so I didn't get round to Sally Rooney's Normal People until long after everyone had stopped raving about it, about two months ago in point of fact. There was also a degree of freight attached in that it was "not the sort of thing I'd usually read" which is, of course, a ridiculous reason not to read a book, but it is fair to say that books that are notionally about relationships aren't generally that high on my to-read list.

So I approached it with a degree of trepidation, it's a terrible thing to approach a book with preconceptions, but sometimes it's unavoidable, and such had been the unanimous chorus of approval, the feverish pitch of the praise (apart, of course, from the murky depths of the Goodreads reviews pages, and those are always best avoided) that I didn't think it could possibly live up to the hype.

In this I was probably right, but to be fair I don't think many books could, Whilst not the life-changing experience promised by the Twitterati I found it to be a very fine novel, and if I occasionally got exasperated with the gilded clever middle-classness of it all, that probably says more about the chip on my shoulder than it does about Rooney's writing. I won't get into plot detail in case you've not read it and wish to, or are currently enjoying the surprisingly good TV adaptation (I'll get onto that rogue "surprisingly" in a moment), it was, for me anyway, pin-sharp on the self-defeating nature of young love, the wilful misunderstandings, the potential futures slipping through your fingers (or not), the terminal overthinking, all came back in a heady rush.

In this, I think the novel does a public service, it acts as an antidote to nostalgia, because Rooney brings all those feelings, first loves, first hurts, first betrayals back so vividly that I found myself deeply relieved that I'm forty two and have been married for thirteen years. Jesus Christ it's a relief to be out of that. There is a fine romance and high drama to all-consuming passion, but it's bloody exhausting.

The evil twin of this relief, though, is a sort of weary recognition that such intensity is beyond you now, and with it comes a degree of wistful envy. You feel everything more sharply in the throes of such an affair, whilst every remark being pregnant with significance is tiring, it's also fascinating, and in the same way that the music we listened to when young will always exert a stronger emotional pull (because it meant so much at the time) so the loves of the past can become loaded with ever more meaning. This is a dangerous way to think (one pithy remark after the TV show aired was "Anyone thinking of calling their s/o from uni: don't", there were lots of jokes about Facebook stalking long-past exes: "Nice looking kids") the consensus was basically don't read / watch it drunk or anywhere near your phone. But what all these jokes acknowledged was the essential truth that the past is very much a foreign country, and whilst it's nice to be reminded that you weren't always tied to a mortgage and herding children, it's best left where it was.

I've had cause to remark in these parts before that nostalgia is a hell of a drug, and it's one to which I know myself to have, if not an addiction, then certainly a recreational habit. You know, at parties, just to be polite. I found Normal People to be the equivalent of a nicotine patch or methadone, an echo of the event, and a good way to wean yourself off. Good book I thought, and popped it back on the shelf, mentally filing it under "re-read in a few years". Then I heard there was TV adaptation, ordinarily I wouldn't bother. I have a sort of rota of shows that I have yet to catch up on, or intend to watch one of these days, and the thought of allowing something to jump the queue doesn't seem quite fair (sorry Breaking Bad, you'll just have to hang on a bit longer). But it was on normal telly at a reasonable hour, so I thought I'd give it a watch.

As with the book, I had a few doubts, though this time I felt them to be slightly better informed. The deceptive blankness of Rooney's prose, fraught as it is with possible meaning and interpretation would, I thought, be a bit difficult to translate to the screen. Plus, there is a lot of fucking. Surely a bit too much for nine o clock on the BBC.

Well, as it turns out, the Beeb are perfectly fine with the sheer quantity of intercourse. Luckily, the worry that had been lurking at the back of my mind (is it particularly seemly for a bloke of my vintage to be watching two people who are supposed to be at school having sex, even if it is, in the old euphemism "essential to the plot"?....when you type it out like, not at all) was allayed by the main flaw of the first couple of episodes, that flaw being if those two are schoolkids then they've had a hard paper round (oh thank God they're clearly adults). But once the suspension of disbelief kicks in then the adaptation is pretty good (not as good as the book, and not as good as the reviews, but pretty good nonetheless), the novel's emotional rawness is faithfully depicted, and the two leads are very fine indeed. At the risk of this blog turning into a TV review, it's a worth a watch.

The TV adaptation did an even better job of reminding you that schooldays weren't all great, and whilst I didn't need reminding that I was probably a lumpen, graceless young arsehole at school (and I look forward in subsequent episodes to being reminded of how I was an arsehole at University, too) the sense of alienation that being even slightly different can inflict is even more vivid on screnn than it is on the page. And so I'll look forward to watching it unfold over the next few weeks, relieved anew every time that I'm a boring middle aged man with no drama in his life, and amen to that.


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