Normal People by Sally Rooney isn’t my favourite book. It probably wouldn’t make my top five if I had to think about it a lot in the grand scheme of things, and perhaps if I picked it up right this second it wouldn’t have left such a dent in my brain.
But often I find that the books that touch the very corners of our neurons aren’t our favourite books. They lurk on bookshelves and are thrust into our hands by some chance of fate just when we need them. Like the universe understands that we’re suppressing and refusing to hear our own thoughts so they show us someone else’s.
I read Normal People in the first term of my first year in University. I was over 100 miles from home, deeply heartbroken, and feeling more lost than I ever thought was imaginable. I was happy, surely? Everything had fallen into place to a certain extent: I had made amazing friends, enjoyed my course enough, still spoke to friends from home, was no longer a sad virgin, and I was going out clubbing three times a week.
So why was I crying myself to sleep at 4am? Why did I feel so empty sometimes it was like someone had hollowed me out?
Normal People was the first time I saw myself in a book. Fiction before had always been a detached sort of escapism – a bit of fun really. Normal People hit me in the gut like a shard of a mirror and forced me to look at the bloody mess I was becoming. Simultaneously I found myself within the characters of Connell and Marianne, and watching them was like witnessing some strange parody of my life.
It sounds silly and trivial to say that a book changed my life. Something I couldn’t do by myself with logic and reasoning. But from that reading I felt a little less alone in the world. It was the first time I really understood why books mattered which also sounds ridiculous considering I was studying English Literature as my degree.
While I’m tempted to reread it to see if it would have the same effect, I’m scared the magic will have waned. The legacy of it in my life is almost more powerful than the words can be on the page – it finally forced me to confront parts of myself that I was hiding.