by Sally Rooney (Faber) ★★★★✩
IRISH writer Sally Rooney wowed critics last year with her debut, Conversations With Friends, about a knotty relationship between two young women poets and a married older man. Now she’s on this year’s Booker longlist with an equally addictive new novel that’s already being adapted for television.
It’s the story of an on-off romance between two star students at a high school in rural Ireland. Marianne — a solicitor’s daughter snubbed by peers as a haughty misfit — starts up a relationship with a more popular classmate, Connell, the son of her mother’s cleaner.
Intellectual equals, they’re a match in bed too — but, to his shame, Connell makes Marianne vow to keep shtum for the sake of his street cred, asking a glossier girl to their graduation do.
It’s the first of several wince-making errors of judgement to banjax any chance of happiness for these obvious soulmates, as we drop in on them at intervals over the next half-decade. This starts at university where, in a role reversal, Marianne becomes the darling of an arty in-crowd, while Connell finds himself dry-mouthed at parties with stuck-up city kids comparing how much their parents earn.
As the friction between Marianne and Connell’s perspectives generates a sparky tragicomedy rich with psychological nuance, the will-they-won’t-they predicament repeatedly dangles the prospect of tender resolution, only for Rooney to whisk it away each time.
It’s a compulsive formula, narrated with such crystalline simplicity that it makes most other novels look like a chore. But it’s chewy too, with ambiguities about the impact of Marianne’s toxic family life — where her mother turns a blind eye to her abuse — and an ending so delicately poised that you’re left eager to press the book on a friend so you can argue over the extent to which Connell’s emotional maturity comes at the expense of Marianne’s dignity.
Some heavy hitters are in with a shot at this year’s Booker but a better book than Normal People will have to be very good indeed.
A brainy, sexy, girl-meets-boy page-turner set in post-crash Ireland
by Patrick deWitt (Bloomsbury) ★★★✩✩
Patrick deWitt hit the big time with his Booker-shortlisted second novel The Sisters Brothers, a tongue-in-cheek and surprisingly affecting pastiche of the western that has just been made into a film.
DeWitt is a promiscuous writer, flirting and subverting a different genre with each new novel. With French Exit he has served up a wry, soufflé-light, European-style comedy about a wealthy, profligate Manhattan widow, Frances, and her desultory son, Malcolm, who, on hearing the money has finally run out, head to Paris to spend what little they have left.
Frances is a professional eccentric, Malcolm seems to have no purpose in life whatsoever, but deWitt spins a diverting oddball tale that treads just the right line between bite and whimsy. Still, it feels as light as a flake of pastry. (CLAIRE ALLFREE)
Only To Sleep: a Philip Marlowe Novel
by Lawrence Osborne (Viking) ★★★✩✩
Lawrence Osborne, the third writer allowed by Raymond Chandler’s estate to undertake a post-mortem Marlowe novel, starts with a nifty idea. His Marlowe is 72 and retired in northern Mexico. This temporal latitude gives him extra legroom over previous writers Robert B Parker and John Banville.
Osborne’s Marlowe is asked to investigate a possible fraud when a man washed up on a beach is survived by a much younger wife. Only To Sleep is almost an unqualified success — the plot meanders but is compelling and Osborne often captures Marlowe’s voice. But he often yanks us out of the plot with a reminder that he’s an English writer merely mimicking Chandler, with regular use of idioms such as ‘petrol’. (PAUL CONNOLLY)