Normal People: Thrusting a mirror at Irish society

Since the publication of her first novel, Conversations With Friends, in 2017, Sally Rooney has gradually become a name muttered by people of all ages across the globe. Last summer, it was announced that her second novel, Normal People would be adapted into a television series by BBC, directed by Oscar-nominated Lenny Abrahamson, who previously directed Room, Garage and Adam and Paul.

In only two weeks after the release of the twelve episodes, Normal People has been the topic of discussion from Twitter to The New York Times to Joe Duffy’s radio show. So, how has a near 300-page book, turned twelve half hour episodes caused such a monumental conversation across Ireland and beyond?

Normal People stars Kildare-native Paul Mescal and English Daisy Edgar-Jones as Connell and Marianne respectively. Both from the fictional town of Carricklea in Sligo, Marianne is the smart, privileged but lonely misfit, living with her distant mother and abusive brother. Connell is the star GAA player, consumed by how he is viewed by his peers, who comes from a young single mother in a modest attached house. Their socioeconomic dynamic is what brings them together as Connell’s mother Lorraine is Marianne’s cleaner. As the two grow closer, they begin a sexual and semi-romantic relationship in secret, so as not to tarnish Connell’s squeaky-clean reputation.

“Marianne struggles with her debilitating feeling that she is unlovable and that she deserves to be mistreated. Connell feels as though college is not what he expected and that his time in school was his social peak.”

The show then follows the two during their four years in Trinity, experiencing both their own individual pain, and the hardship of trying to make a relationship work when the external factors are doing the opposite. Marianne struggles with her debilitating feeling that she is unlovable and that she deserves to be mistreated. Connell feels as though college is not what he expected and that his time in school was his social peak. Both try to forget their pasts so as to become the people that they have always wanted to be, but despite their efforts, their painful pasts seem to echo through their new urban lives. These are all feelings and emotions that people in their 20s feel but are too ashamed or embarrassed to talk about.

The acting for the most part is perfectly controlled, every conversation is emotionally calculated and the chemistry between Mescal and Jones is electric, even when the characters can’t understand each other. They both somehow act out the seamless decline into the world’s reality, taking in every joy and every heartbreak to ultimately form broken but healing characters. They are as strong together as they are apart.

The first six episodes are directed by Abrahamson and I fervently feel that there was no better choice. Abrahamson’s ability to grasp emotions, feelings, thoughts and body language with a single shot, is exactly what the adaptation required. Abrahamson was able to capture the private language between Marianne and Connell, showing the audience instead of telling us. He handles the sex scenes with the poetic license that stops it from becoming exploitative and captures every awkward passion.

“The contrasting of shots of the liberating Sligo coast and the exciting but suffocating feel of Dublin centre parallels with the emotional roller-coaster that Marianne and Connell ride throughout the series.”

The contrasting of shots of the liberating Sligo coast and the exciting but suffocating feel of Dublin centre parallels with the emotional roller-coaster that Marianne and Connell ride throughout the series.

The last six episodes are under the direction of Hettie MacDonald, however you don’t feel any shift in perspective. The series flows effortlessly and unfolds so seamlessly, that when it ends, you’ll feel as though you’re coming out of a trance.

One of the most noted scenes of the series is the conversation between Connell and Marianne before they first have sex. Connell reassures of Marianne that they can stop whenever she feels and that she is under no obligation to follow through with the act. It’s a poignant lesson in the language surrounding sex and consent, however Joe Duffy’s show revealed that not everyone was as pleased. Instead, older men and women rang in to express their disgust at the sexual content, claiming that no seventeen-year-olds are committing such sins, only revealing just how ignorant older generations are to young life in current day Ireland and allowing the issue of consent to go over their heads.

The main theme of Normal People and an issue that I believe many Irish people will attest to as being a major component of our society is miscommunication. It is one brief, small misunderstanding between Marianne and Connell that cuts their time together in half.

The debilitating fear of feeling as though you can’t say how you feel has plagued this country for generations and that is what lies at the centre of this series and is what makes it a somewhat modern-day Romeo and Juliet except in the position of a dagger, poison and lost letter, it’s the inability to express one’s self.

What sets this show apart is that Connell is not Marianne’s hero nor vice versa. As Rooney writes herself “they’ve done a lot of good for each other” but what Normal People shows is that people can change you but the only person that can truly save you is yourself. Being thrust into adult life leaving behind the comfort of the home you know is terrifying and can take its toll on you. Feeling scared, anxious and unprepared during this is okay and is exactly what makes us all Normal People.

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