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Is her literary success reflective of a society-wide mental health crisis?

Ahead of the release of her third novel Beautiful World, Where Are You this September, the buzz around Sally Rooney’s writing does not seem set to diminish any time soon. The success of the TV adaptation of Normal People has only widened her readership and leaves us asking, why are people so mesmerised by her work?

After my first year as an English Literature student, I fell into a bit of a reading slump, unsure what to pick up after months of just trying to keep up with my assigned texts. During summer, I nipped into a bookshop and picked up a couple of bestsellers without much thought. I sat outside my flat in the sunshine and started reading Normal People by Sally Rooney. At first, I was put off by the lack of speech marks, and unsure if it would offer more than the many other books about angsty teenagers I’d read. But as I kept reading, I started to get the feel of Rooney’s writing and I couldn’t put it down. 

I’m often drawn to character-driven books, and Rooney’s strength is undoubtedly in her ability to create complex, believable characters. Normal People may not be a light beach read (delving into domestic violence, sexual assault, class difference, and grief, to name a few) but it has the ability to reach into your gut and bring out all your repressed emotions. In a world where most of us push aside the pain and get on with things, watching Connell and Marianne being frustratingly unable to communicate how they feel or what they’re dealing with, allows us to reflect on how we do the same. The first time I read Normal People, this culminated in the scene where Connell visits the university counsellor, where someone is finally acknowledging the feelings he has buried and we see him tentatively express his grief and isolation. This hit home with me, when I was also feeling like I’d failed to find like-minded people at uni and couldn’t quite express what was wrong as things piled up. Connell’s reluctant acknowledgement of the reality of the mental health issues he suffers from felt like a relaying of my own experience, and worryingly I think this is why Rooney’s books are so resonant with people. 

As Rooney said herself in an interview with the New Yorker: “I tend to write characters who are roughly as articulate and insightful as I am about what they think and feel. In other words, they are sometimes perceptive but more often crushingly unable to describe or explain what is going on in their lives.” In a global mental health crisis, these Irish intellectuals could parallel anyone. With this intricate characterisation, and their ability to whisk the reader through time alongside heart-breaking love stories, Rooney’s writing has all the workings of a classic by Jane Austen or the Brontës. 

Yet the content is completely contemporary, reflecting the overwhelming nature of the modern world and our inability to articulate how it makes us feel. In Conversations with Friends, when depicting LGBTQ+ characters, the novel is less concerned with familial acceptance or coming out, and more with the blurred lines of best friend and ex-girlfriend, and the emotional turmoil this can produce. It portrays middle-class Arts students with anti-capitalist sentiment living off of their parents’ money; overwhelmed with choice and the pressure to make use of the privilege they have been given, whilst uncomfortable with the fact they had such privilege to begin with. Champagne problems these may be, but often it is those who seem to have it all who struggle mentally and emotionally. 

Conversations with Friends represents how our world breeds anxiety and self-destruction, and how those with the highest education are often among the most emotionally stilted. 

The success of Sally Rooney’s novels may not be encouraging, as it shows how many people can relate to this inability to express the anxieties inherent in our society. However, I did come away from reading them with a greater understanding of how I’d processed (or failed to process) my own difficulties, and the notion to make a change. In that regard, it might be encouraging that so many are feeling attached to these novels, as maybe it is a move away from repressed feelings towards self-awareness and the recognition that we need to find emotional outlets.


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