Illustrations by Hannah Robinson
I have not read Normal People. I have been told how brilliant it is, but I simply never got around to reading it. So when the advert for the TV show popped up on my news feed a week ago, I thought maybe I should finally give it a read. Instead, I jumped in and watched the whole series. I was blown away.
As it happens, the book arrived in the post yesterday morning. A female friend of mine decided enough was enough and sent it to me with the endorsement that, “the brilliant thing about Normal People, is that it’s from the female perspective – a bit like Fleabag and Killing Eve, it feels completely new. Sally Rooney, the author, subverts the normal ‘boy meets girl’ narrative.” Yet, when I watched the show, I felt, in fact, the story represented my experience too.
Director Lenny Abrahamson, from Dublin and once a student at Trinity College himself, operates this brilliant material with the same emotional delicacy that brought him an Oscar nomination for Best Director for Room (2016). Perhaps that is the show’s biggest strength. As a female writer and male director join forces, they effectively intertwine both the male and female sensibilities on screen.
Set in contemporary Ireland, the series focuses on the on-off relationship between a high-achieving social reject, Marianne (Daisy Edgar-Jones) and Connell (Paul Mescal), the tall but shy, Irish equivalent of a high-school jock. The first few episodes take us through their school days in Sligo. The pair both arrive at Trinity College Dublin, yet not as a couple. In situations instantly recognisable to anyone that has been to university, Connell struggles to find his feet amongst his more outgoing classmates and Marianne settles into an eclectic mix of friends, quickly finding herself in a relationship with a needy boyfriend.
Through the first six episodes, before passing on directorial duties to Hettie Macdonald, Abrahamson skilfully inserts us into the minds of the two lead characters. By carefully weaving tracking shots behind the characters’ shoulders with a string of intimate close ups, he lets us into both Connell and Marianne’s experience with equal care. We feel Connell’s pain as he struggles to express his emotions and immediately understand Marianne’s uncomfortable relationship with a jealous older brother. The cinematography focuses on the details: the beauty of the wind in the trees, the lingering touch of a finger on the arm. In moments that might seem so insignificant, the emotion seeps through.
This is an instantly recognisable journey, yet an extremely personal story from which each viewer will extract something different. So much more than just a love story, it is a powerhouse of emotion and a blessing for our small screens, at the time when we need it most. The creative harmony between Rooney’s novel and Abrahamson’s adaptation reflect the heart of the story. Boy or girl, watch this show. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a book to read.