Sally Rooney’s debut novel, Conversations with Friends, is one of the most compelling works of fiction I have ever read. Her new novel, Normal People, is no less so.
Both of these novels have been primarily characterised as modern love stories—two women figuring out who they are through the maze of their first significant romantic relationships. And, of course, this is true—in Conversations with Friends, the main plot-driver is our protagonist’s tortured relationship with a married man. In Normal People, it is the protagonist’s largely hidden, on-again-off-again romance with her unlikely partner Connell.
But to me, there is more to it than this. These romantic relationships are narrated by the parts of the protagonists that appear to be self-possessed—clever, intellectual and able to analyse their relationships with others, and in doing so, they are able to push those relationships forward. But the verb, in both cases, is key: analyse.
In Conversations with Friends, our protagonist is Frances, a girl who prides herself on her intellectual abilities but appears to have no interiority at all; no self-awareness, no humility. On page one we are told that her ex-girlfriend and best friend, Bobbi, thinks she has no personality. She says she likes this; she likes that she is built from a bundle of perfectly curated responses to the needs of those around her; she likes playing the role of ‘the smiling girl who remembers things’.
Throughout the novel, we watch Frances as she reconstructs herself again and again in an attempt to win the approval of others. She thrives in the realm of the intellectual—she is the clever girl who can hold her own in an argument and has no interest connecting with, or responding to, her own emotions. She agonises over heavily-curated emails, text messages, aesthetics, sometimes, it seems, even entire personalities. Sometimes we don’t know who she will be from one moment to the next.
She tells us: At any time I could do or say anything at all, and only afterwards think: oh, so that’s the kind of person I am.
In Rooney’s second novel, Normal People, we encounter a young woman who is similar to Frances in many ways. Marianne is a teenager attempting to navigate her way into adulthood as an outsider; as someone who accepts her own worthlessness in social situations as a given. By the time we meet her, Marianne tells us that she has ‘never believed herself fit to be loved by any person’.
Both female protagonists exist in the analytical realm of their minds and narrate to us their interpretation of their experience based on that part of themselves. They can analyse other people’s needs, emotions, reactions and responses to the reader with ease. In these sections—which make up the majority of both books—the narrators seem confident and assured in their analysis. And their confidence is earned: they both thrive in this space. But there is more depth to them that deserves exploration.
I am in the process of researching and writing a work of creative non-fiction about a violent sexual assault I endured as a teenager, and as a result have spent countless hours researching the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. A problematic aspect of these symptoms is that they hide in plain sight: they are insidious, hard to recognise, and too often dismissed as negative—usually ‘feminine’—qualities.
The fact that we find it difficult to talk about trauma means we also find ourselves reluctant to talk about the tell-tale signs of post-traumatic stress disorder—instead we interpret them as personality traits. This often means they are not only hidden from society at large, but they are also hidden from the people they affect. They are a secret kept even from ourselves. This is a profound and devastating indignity.
Now that I have learned precisely what the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder look like, I see them everywhere. To me, there is an interpretation of Rooney’s work that has trauma at its core. Trauma that is wreaking havoc on protagonists who have not yet learned to recognise it; protagonists from whom the secret remains hidden. With a beautiful and careful deftness, Rooney creates a world in which she, the author, knows more about the characters than they know about themselves. She sees their trauma for what it is, but they do not have the tools to do so themselves.
One of the most significant lasting symptoms of childhood trauma is the lack of a quality referred to in the literature as ‘self-leadership’. If children grow up in violent homes or volatile situations, they learn from a very young age to be acutely attuned to the moods and needs of those around them, because they learn that certain moods and needs lead to episodes of violence whereas others do not. In survival mode, children become the puppet-masters—they seek to minimise violence, and to do so they develop a response to external events and stimuli so poignant that it overrides anything else.
What this means for a child is that they miss a crucial stage of their development: the stage at which they develop interiority, or self-leadership. In safety, children start to respond to internal cues about their own needs, desires, fears and passions. They learn about themselves from these cues and develop a meaningful sense of self. Traumatised children, on the other hand, never get this chance. Retreating to their internal worlds would mean abandoning the precision with which they analyse everything around them, and to do so would be to put themselves in danger.
Instead of learning about their own emotional cues and instincts, traumatised children develop into adults who exist purely externally—they are constructed out of the puzzle pieces of the needs, wants and expectations of those around them.
I recognised this in Frances immediately—her life is carefully curated for the purposes of those around her. She transforms herself based upon who is watching her. She, herself, admits she has ‘no personality’. She wonders aloud to the reader what the right thing to say in any given situation might be, and this calculation is always dependent on who is listening, never dependent upon what she actually believes to be the right thing to say. She is just the smiling girl who remembers things.
Another symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder is a sense of fixity—a lack of the ability to recognise that humans are fluid and personalities can develop and change. Adults who were hurt as children develop a sense that they will always be deserving of mistreatment, or, in Marianne’s words, never fit to be loved by any person. This sense of fixity, of an inherent badness resulting from childhood trauma, often manifests in adults in a manner that causes them to hurt themselves because they believe they deserve the treatment they grew accustomed to as children. They re-enact traumas again and again to satisfy this sense that they are undeserving; a truly cruel self-fulfilling prophecy.
While Marianne shows fewer of the characteristics of an adult with a lack of interiority—she seems to care less than Frances about her external world—she certainly shows signs of her sense that she is undeserving, that she always will be. She tells us as much. But we also learn that she found herself in a physically abusive relationship with a young man who attacks her during sex. She then seeks out violence during sex even when she finds herself in a healthy relationship, punishing herself again and again. Frances displays this behavioural pattern, too. Throughout the novel, there are multiple scenes of self-harm that Frances describes but does not explain. She presents them as if the desire to hurt herself is simply part of who she is.
I recognised these symptoms in these young women right away but its not until the end of both novels that we learn that both women have, indeed, been victims of domestic abuse or violence. For Frances, this comes in the form of her alcoholic father whom we sense she is frightened of, and for. For Marianne, the abuse comes from her brother—we witness an attack at the end of the novel that we presume is one in a long line of assaults throughout her life.
When I was the age of Frances and Marianne, I was painfully unaware of the impacts of my rape; I was entirely unable to identify which parts of me were symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder and which parts were me. But now, I recognise these characteristics in Rooney’s protagonist’s because I have finally been able to recognise them in myself.
Without this knowledge, I blamed myself for every word, every symptom, every failure that resulted from an attack that was not my fault and that I did not deserve. I was so much like Frances, but it was not because I was vain or self-obsessed. It was because I had learned that acutely interpreting external cues and responding to them accordingly is the best way to survive.
Rooney’s true skill in exploring this issue, though, is the way in which she depicts characters who, tragically, cannot yet recognise their symptoms for what they are. When the two women are talking about their family situations, Rooney’s sentences become short and declarative. These are the only times in the novels that we are presented with straightforward descriptions of events. No intellectual or emotional engagement, just facts on the page.
There is no analysis here. In these scenes, there is no sign of the intellectual girls who pride themselves on their deftness in the analytical realm. There is no analysis whatsoever.
To me, Rooney is making a profound statement about the theft visited upon young traumatised women through our society’s inability to openly talk about trauma and its symptoms. So many readers describe Frances and Marianne as ‘unlikeable’ characters because of their externality, their vanity, their strange predilections. This is also, we learn, what the characters think of themselves.
But the author knows better. She knows that these attributes are not fixed into their personalities at all; they are symptoms of a psychiatric disorder for which no young woman should be blamed, and yet for which so many young women, every day, are.
The world has hidden from Frances and Marianne that what happened to them as children was not their fault, and so as adults they believe the symptoms of those events are not symptoms at all, but fundamental and immutable character flaws for which they should be criticised. But I saw them as, I think, the author sees them—as women who did not deserve their trauma and have not yet been able to interpret or navigate its devastating long-term consequences.
One of the things I’ve heard many book-lovers say about Conversations with Friends is that they constantly hope that Frances will develop and mature over the course of the book, that she will become more self-aware. At the end, when Frances capitulates to the fickle desires of her married romantic love interest, some might think that the character has learned nothing. But I don’t believe this to be the case at all.
The wisdom that the narrator leaves with the reader is: You have to live through things before you understand them. You can’t always take the analytical position.
This is a profound triumph on the path to overcoming trauma—Frances knows she is putting herself in harm’s way but she is consciously acknowledging this for the first time. Also for the first time, she is acknowledging that her external life, constructed and fuelled by analysis, is not all there is to her.
The entire novel is about performative conversations with friends. This final line, to me, is the first time we witness Frances having a conversation with herself, and I couldn’t be more proud of her.
Lucia Osborne-Crowley is a journalist and writer. Her first book, a work of creative non-fiction about trauma and recovery, will be published in 2019.