I haven’t done anything like a book review for ages but sometimes a book is more than just a book, it’s a connection, and so you make an exception. The book I am talking about (and that I bought recently and read last week) is the much-praised Conversations with Friends, the first novel from Sally Rooney. Rooney is a ‘young’ writer (in her mid twenties or thereabouts) but some of us had a few online exchanges with her when she was a lot younger and so we feel a tiny bit connected to this now runaway publishing star. In those exchanges Rooney was always smart and friendly and gently fascinating and it appears she has stayed true to herself because that still comes across if you read any of the interviews that accompany her first book’s publication (try this one in the Irish Independent).
So what about the book? Well, Rooney doesn’t mess about – she weeds out a good portion of the reading public in her first sentence by dropping in the words ‘poetry night’ (and that made me laugh straightaway – if only they knew how much sex was coming later…). But for those of us who stay past “Bobbi and I first met Melissa at a poetry night in town, where we were performing together.” there is some gorgeous writing in the next 300 plus pages. I read Conversations... in about 2 days (some of it at about 4.30am when I couldn’t sleep) and it is just that kind of book – a book to take on an odd trip with a strange bunch of people, a book to feel a bit conflicted about, a book to give you a bit of headache (in that ‘must stop reading now, my brain is blurring…’ kind of a way). It is wry and funny in places, dry and lonely in others.
It’s not light fiction but it certainly is crisp. Rooney unquestionably writes like a dream – one minute beautifully simple, then scissor-sharp. The ‘friends’ are 4 main characters, with a few others in the background, (and how friendly any of them really are changes from page to page – Central Perk this is not). The details of modern life are delicious – they will date soon enough, of course, but then we can love them even more then (= nostalgia). There is, as you might expect from the title, a lot of talking… and drinking… and sex… but a good deal of the novel is about how we present ourselves to others, about self-consciousness and (I think) that process we go through in our twenties (if we are lucky) when we try to work out what feelings are, which ones matter, and which ones don’t. We might put on a cynical face at that age but it is often just a cover for giant hopes and dreams (even if we don’t know that until later). My 20s are a fairly long time ago but I think that's how it was...
The central character, Frances, feels like the Rooney I think I know (though of course I don’t really know her at all…). Frances is young (a student) and particularly awkward (at least to us, the readers). There is a lot of talk about faces (hers and others’), about expressions, mirrors, appearances… it is exactly what we older readers think young people think about all the time (though we do it a bit too of course…). “Even I could see I had character,” says Frances (to us) about a photo of herself. Frances is smart too.
Frances writes poems (though I think she will grow out of it…) and I laughed again in chapter two when Rooney has her “sitting in bed in the morning writing poetry, hitting the return key whenever I wanted” (I have so done that… still do sometimes…). The character is all-knowing in some ways and yet, in the tradition of young-people-going-out-in-the-world fiction, she makes some big gaffes, falls into some fairly well-trodden paths and has to try to dig herself out again. There are points in the story where you might feel there is some cliché in the air (taking a group of people to a big house in France… what could possibly go wrong?) but Frances is strong enough (as our heroine) to keep us with her and bring us out the other side. She is good company – observant, interesting, a little over-analytical maybe but no-one’s perfect – and going through clichéd experiences is a rite of passage after all (who hasn’t had to creep around a house at night because you shouldn’t be with X doing Y – come on, it can’t just be me?). Who hasn’t had difficult family situations, kept heartbreaking secrets, sent emails they shouldn’t have? And what happens to us when these corny situations have us… in their grasp? Do we still have character? Do we survive? I think that’s part of what Rooney is doing with this novel. But I might be wrong. I'm not a professional book reviewer or anything.
A lot of the content seems to be about presenting contrast too – well-heeled media folk in big houses vs. everyone else in dirtier, more cramped accommodation or attractive, charismatic Bobbi vs. Frances (who doesn’t feel like she is either of those things, but is). As the novel progresses the differences blur a little – partly at least because Frances enters other worlds and sees their pros and cons. Whilst studying, for example, she makes this comment on herself: “I’m bettering myself, I thought. I’m going to become so smart that no one will understand me.”
The novelist I most thought of when I read Conversations was Zadie Smith. A few reasons I suppose (I am a fan, read her new book this year and reread On Beauty after that) but Smith was also ‘the hot new literary discovery’ straight from college in her time (bidding war etc.), is super smart but wants to write books all her friends can read, I suspect, and not just her publishers and academic colleagues. It’s not the easiest road to travel, as a writer (though it may look that way to others…). You will be built up high and sometimes people will throw things at you. You will, perhaps, grow to curse the clichés about yourself that will follow you round for years and years (some of which will be true, others less so) but there will be consolations and here are just three of them: you will write some magnificent lines, you will construct some interesting fictional friends, and, most of all, you will have readers. Oh what a joy*.
Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney (Faber & Faber) is available pretty much everywhere.
Cover of UK hardback features painting "Sharon and Vivien" (2009) by Alex Katz (as on this post).
*Yes, I am quoting Chic in a book review.