A(nother) Review: Normal People by Sally Rooney

January turned into a pretty crazy month for me. I left my job of sixteen years with nowhere to go and then had a short case of man-flu towards the end of the month.

There are bigger stories behind both of these things, but you don’t care about them. All you need to know is I’m using them as my excuse as to why I haven’t written any blog posts so far this year.

I have still been reading during this time though, and the first book I read this year was Normal People by Sally Rooney.

You’ll almost have certainly seen this book around – it was longlisted for the Booker, shortlisted for the Costa, and declared Book of the Year by Waterstones. It’s been hard to miss, but maybe like me, you’ve gone several months having seen its distinctive cover without knowing exactly what’s underneath?

Normal People follows the relationship between Marianne and Connell – two teenagers who go to the same school in the west of Ireland, but have nothing really else in common and nothing to do with each other. Their lives start to become entwined, though, when Connell’s mother starts to clean for Marianne’s.

An attraction is formed and we become voyeurs to their relationship over the years, watching how they drift toward and away from each other as their circumstances change, drawing ever closer to what we assume is the natural conclusion.

Your next question, as is my duty to answer, is how good a book is it? There’s certainly been a lot of hype about it and it is well written, but the characters left me a bit lacking. I didn’t connect with either Marianne or Connell in a particularly strong way.

I didn’t dislike them, but to be ambivalent about the two lead characters when the lens is so tightly drawn around them is a problem.

Perhaps I was expecting too much after all the critical acclaim, or perhaps, as they title alludes they were supposed to be this normal.

It’s still very well written and an enjoyable read, I just didn’t quite get into it as much as other readers did.

7/10

Normal People is available now from Faber & Faber

A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James

A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James

I’m about to do something I swore I wouldn’t ever do. So to past me, I must apologise.

However, to present me, future me and to you, whoever you are that happens to be reading this, I won’t apologise, because I have something to say.

I’m about to review a book that I only read forty pages or so of.

I know what you’re thinking. That was either a completely life changing forty pages, or… they were a bit shit.

Actually, neither.

I’ll admit to being a bit biased before I (attempted to) read A Brief History of Seven Killings, for two reasons, both of which are A Little Life.

 

Now, even I’m starting to get bored with how much I bang on about A Little Life so I’m going to try and soon write a blog that doesn’t reference it, but here the reference is relevant.

It was indirectly recommended to me on twitter by someone claiming it to be better than A Little Life, and it also beat the Hanya Yanagihara tome to this year’s Booker Prize (which was not a huge surprise since the favourite never wins).

I felt obliged to give it a go, and I was hooked by the premise of multiple characters crossing oceans and years to tell the story.

My first issue was a small one – the paper of the pages was not of great quality. Thin pages, mean hard to turn pages and I kept skipping pages without realising it.

However, the reason I didn’t realise I was skipping pages was because the language used in the book was so hard for to follow, told in many places in the dialect of the character speaking.

Jamaican Patois is not something I’m hugely familiar with, it’s not something that crops up all that regularly in deepest Wiltshire, and so I found it hard to inhabit the mindset of the characters. It left me detached and uncaring.

What it did make me realise however, is how alienating most fiction can be to ethnic minorities. Most things are written in a formal English, one that most people don’t speak on a day-to-day basis, but is close enough to traditional spoken English that it is accessible.

I wonder how easy someone who regularly speaks Patois would find it to inhabit the characters of A Little Life or A Place Called Winter. Perhaps the limitation is mine and mine alone and it wouldn’t be a problem.

There’s an interesting study to be done here on ethnicity and reading habits, and it’s probably one that already exists if I cared enough to seek it out. But it strikes me as suddenly very obvious why there are some cultures where literacy is low – they’re under-represented in fiction, the fun part of being able to read.

I did find that if I read the passages aloud (in a very bad attempt at a Jamaican accent) there was a wonderful lyrical, almost poetic quality to the writing. This isn’t a book that was written, it was carefully crafted, but I couldn’t quite bring myself to listen to my own voice for nearly seven hundred pages.

From what I read, it certainly deserved to win the Booker Prize (a prize that is traditionally given to books that most people struggle to get into) and I would recommend it to anyone who doesn’t struggle with dialects.

I, however, will seek out an audio version so that I can listen to someone much better at reading out loud tell me the tale.

#BEDM14: Jammy-Dodger-Man

I have quite an odd relationship with superheroes.

I find the notion of them a little bit odd.

Spider-man. Batman. Superman. Wonder Woman. For a start, I find their names a bit… dull. I guess they were cutting edge names when they were first created, but we’re decades down the line now, it’s all a bit cliché.

But I can forgive them that. (Especially as I’d admit to wanting my own version of that name. I’d probably end up being BiscuitMan – now there’s a superhero I can get on board with. Flying around the world in a never-ending battle against those 4pm munchies)

No, where I really take issue is the supposed goodness of these characters.

They are given great powers, and yes, we all know that with great power comes great responsibility.

But why should I admire these people because they do good things with these great powers. I mean, I guess I’m grateful they’re not doing bad things with it, but it sort of underwhelms me a bit.

Let’s take Buffy Summers as a case in point (another silly name but at least she’s not SlayerGirl) because she’s the superhero that I’m most qualified to comment on.

She’s a superhero for the modern day, and perhaps quite far away from the traditional type of superhero, however on the points I’m going to illustrate now, she’s quite similar.

Among other things which are not really elaborated on, but presumably include heightened senses, and a keen sense of strategy, she is gifted with super strength. Great.

She uses that strength to go around beating up bad guys. Fabulous. Even better.

But she’s also gifted with some great friends. I’m going to pick on Xander in particular.

He’s a bit whiny. I don’t find him particularly attractive, but the key thing is, he’s there with Buffy through seven years of fighting evil.

And he’s normal. He doesn’t have super strength. He’s generally a bit of an idiot. But he tries. And it’s harder for him than it is for Buffy, because he’s not gifted with the same in-born skills.

Sure, he might not achieve everything that Buffy does, he certainly doesn’t save the world as often as she does… but here’s the thing: He does save the world.

When a world-class writer wins the Booker Prize, we’re all pleased for him or her, and we probably all adore the book. But me? I reserve my admiration for the lifeguard that didn’t win, but DID make it to the shortlist.

Conversely – a lifeguard during a storm saving fifteen people from drowning. That’s amazing, I don’t want to do that down, but it IS their job.

It’s what they’re good at. In the same storm, a world-class writer puts down his pen, and without second thought dives in and saves just one person. That’s incredible, and that’s what gets my admiration.

Superheroes come in all shapes and sizes, but what makes a hero super, isn’t the good they achieve with their natural abilities. It’s the good they achieve without them.

Prompt: Which superhero do you identify with and why?