What’s It About?
Alice, a novelist, meets Felix, a warehouse worker. In Dublin, her best friend, Eileen, slips back into flirting with Simon, a man she has known since childhood. The narrative follows these four characters as they navigate the nuances of their relationships with each other.
What’s It Really About?
“Is this how it’s going to be for the rest of our lives? Time dissolving into thick dark fog, things that happened last week seeming years ago, and things that happened last year feeling like yesterday.”
…and getting older…
“To think of childhood gave her a funny queasy feeling, because it had been real life once and now it was something else. The old people had died, the babies had grown old. It would happen also to Eileen, also to Lola, who were young and beautiful now, loving and hating one another, laughing with white teeth, smelling of perfume.”
…and the feeling of endless possibility the young can get…
“All my feelings and experiences were in one sense extremely intense, and in another sense completely trivial, because none of my decisions seemed to have any consequences, and nothing about my life – the job, the apartment, the desires, the love affairs – struck me as permanent. I felt anything was possible, that there were no doors shut behind me, and that out there somewhere, as yet unknown, there were people who would love and admire me and want to make me happy. Maybe that explains in some way the openness I felt toward the world – maybe without knowing it, I was anticipating my future, I was watching for signs.”
…and how later on you suddenly realise that these things right in front of you – the good and the bad – are the things that are making up your life… but that there is still beauty underneath the everyday…
“The streets were quiet and dark, and the air was oddly warm and still, and on the quays the office buildings were all lit up inside, and empty, and underneath everything, beneath the surface of everything, I began to feel it all over again – the nearness, the possibility of beauty, like a light radiating softly from behind the visible world, illuminating everything.”
…and meaning too, somehow, somewhere…
“I only feel, rightly or wrongly, that there is something underneath everything. When one person kills or harms another person, then there is ‘something’ – isn’t there? Not simply atoms flying around in various configurations through empty space.”
…particularly in our little confusions, obsessions and interactions with each other.
What’s It Like to Read?
Sally Rooney’s style is unique in my reading experience. There is a narrative voice and long passages without any internals – where we are not given direct access to the thoughts of the characters beyond what they say to each other directly or in writing. I would have thought that this style might lead to a feeling of distance from the characters, but it was not so. Just as we get to know people in real life through minute observation of what they do and say, the immaculate detail of Rooney’s descriptions allow us to do that with the characters in the book.
There’s very little flowery language in this novel. Rooney often says what things looked like and what the characters did in the simplest terms. But the detail is immense. The detail is what transforms that style of writing from being dry to being hugely evocative of character, time and place. Nothing is left out. Tiny things are given space – like the reflection of the bulb of a ceiling light in the screen of a smartphone in the seconds that a character waits for a message response. Then when the prose loosens a bit – when there are similes thrown in – they are perfectly chosen.
“…they all began talking, quickly, remonstrating, laughing, complaining, adjusting each other’s clothing, and the activity in the room was rapid and noisy, like the activity of birds.”
This comes from a passage describing the bridal party preparing on the morning of a wedding. There are a few other similes here, linking the preparations to natural imagery – “her slim white arms like reeds, like branches…” – to accentuate the links being made in this scene to the character’s childhoods and their play outdoors. It’s so careful and intentional yet also unassuming and easy. The prose ends up being almost elegiac despite – or perhaps because of – its simplicity. The detail is just so well observed. It perfectly paints the world in which we exist: its everyday beauty and ridiculous banality.
Until the end, I did not think it would be accurate to say I liked any of the four main characters in a straightforward way – though I did hugely empathise with them and saw elements of my own thoughts and lived experience in them. The ending changed that a bit though – I fell in love with them all, simply for being real.