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An unforgettable novel about the possibility of love.
So says the blurb on the back of Sally Rooney’s debut novel, Conversations with Friends. Unforgettable, it is. This is a story of convergence and collision between two pairs of intimate friends and lovers: the young and confident Frances and Bobbi; and the older married couple, Nick and Melissa. Rooney has entered the literary ring with force, demonstrating mastery over the subtle means with which we use our words to make meaning of others and ourselves. As for the possibilities of love that are presented, the prevailing suggestion of love’s indiscriminate cruelty makes this read more as love on trial than love on a pedestal.
Clearly aware of her strengths as a writer, the actual conversations that are had in Conversations with Friends are so uncannily like our own that the nuance and mystery from which we yearn for order to emerge register as unconsciously as daily life itself. As is too often the case in reality, however, the depth of sociality explored by Rooney only entangles her primary cast of four in a mire of confusion and deceit. Lies and dishonesty beget mistrust between characters whose love and friendship are forever at stake in a genuinely moving eulogy to the loss of lives we envisage for ourselves. Although the lack of a plot in the traditional sense might disconcert readers unused to the almost non-fictional hyperreality on display, Rooney’s tonal delicacy constructs dynamic scenarios of shifting targets and interpersonal power struggles. Throughout the novel is a clarity of language that gives one the impression of watching a high-quality television drama. Every hesitation and side-eye is included alongside monosyllabic evasions and clumsy expressions of passion. Rooney has at her disposal a vast array of social semantics with which she deepens the meaning of the eponymous conversations. The dialogue becomes embroiled with a paranoiac energy through barely perceptible transgressions.
While the admirable editorial powers of the author are exploited by unlimited access to each subtlety of communication, Rooney’s weakness is perhaps in spending too much time legitimating the world through her protagonist’s internal life. Deprived of environmental descriptors, the novel moves hastily at times from place to place, which is especially disorienting when the characters and their motives remain generally fixed. That’s not to say that it is bereft of the comforts of well-placed adjectives, but the stark space of Frances’s mind can be at times unwelcoming. Our relationship with the protagonist is certainly challenged in this way, yet deftly so. This occasional disorientation perhaps speaks also to the dissolution of social boundaries in cyberspace. A moment’s lapse in concentration might disarm the reader by sudden clashes between Frances and Bobbi online. Rooney’s handling of social media is by no means tacky or out of place; instead, the online sphere is interwoven so seamlessly into Frances’s life as to reflect the duality of selves which we maintain in modern communications.
Although the physical environs of the novel are at times indistinct, Rooney makes eager use of material assets as signifiers of social wealth. Thus, Frances straddles an uneasy space between the aspirant cosmopolitanism of Dublin City and the degrading filth in which her father lives in Mayo. A sojourn in France gives insight into the vacuous decadence of Nick and Melissa, yet despite the abyss of material wealth in which Frances struggles at times to survive, we are no clearer than she as to her rightful place either side of the wealth spectrum.
In this way, Conversations with Friends speaks to the profoundly disaffected attitude of an entire generation of youth, whose assurances of prosperity from the generation above have been decimated by the harrowing socio-political farce of contemporary Western society. Rooney gives us what has been sadly lacking in much of our cultural conscience: an unabashed Communist. The politics of Conversations with Friends will surely resonate with any student who has known the brutal reality of minimum-waged labour, where contract violations by employers are commonplace, and social respect is minimal. The events of this novel will give cold comfort to the legions of talented youth being waylaid by competitive unpaid internships and a total lack of meaningful employment. From semi-starvation to crippling endometriosis, Frances is redeemed repeatedly by her sheer resilience in adversity. It is a relief to read a book set in Ireland which is not obsessed with its own Irishness, while at the same time does not shy away from the realities of being Irish. Particularly from the female perspective, the image of Ireland returned by this book is austere. Yet, in those places where the tempting crutch of Irishness is shirked, Rooney takes a pan-European approach to her writing. This story would lose very little of its universal appeal in the hands of a skilled translator.
Conversations with Friends is a deceptively ordinary novel. The laconic voice of the narrator would not be misplaced in the timeless bildungsroman of Salinger or Françoise Sagan. Yet, instead of upholding these old models of personal change and assimilation into society, Rooney co-opts this form as a means of portraying resistance to the normalising process of change. Beneath a shallow exterior in which people speak directly and without fear lies a novel that is innovative and extremely relevant to its time. There are no heroes, only people doing as they wish and wishing that others would do so too.
Overall, this is a finely crafted novel, and is ideally suited to anybody looking to get back into the habit of reading. Given a few years, this will undoubtedly become a common favourite amongst audiences young and old, whether casual readers or seasoned bookworms. Conversations with Friends is a promising start to a career worth watching. Sally Rooney is a competent author who has earned her place in Irish and European text culture.