Sally Rooney | Beautiful World, Where Are You? | Faber & Faber: £16.99
Sally Rooney, Ireland’s most recent literary sensation, certainly knows how to draw readers in with her latest novel, Beautiful World, Where Are You? Centring around the friendships between the two main characters and their partners, it offers a familiar portrait of millennials as they doss about in irresolute relationships.
Alice, a young writer who has recently suffered a nervous breakdown following the success of her two previous novels, writes to her friend Eileen, an editor for a literary magazine in Dublin. The pair know each other from their university days, and while Alice bemoans her new position as a ‘bourgeois novelist’ and the fame that comes with it, Eileen shares her failing attempts at romance as she dwindles in the fading light of her academic stardom.
The majority of the novel is set on the rural coast of West Ireland, where Alice convalesces. There she meets Felix, a warehouse-worker who is also trying to recover himself somewhat, following his mother’s death. Meanwhile, back in the city, Eileen tries to tease out her feelings for the tall and beautiful Simon, a political consultant and quasi-Catholic in his mid-thirties, who she grew up with.
Rooney is toying with her readers’ expectations from the beginning. Alice and Felix’s first date is unsuccessful, and the initial sex scene we are given of Simon and Eileen will leave you cringing. The romantic relationships evolve in an almost painfully realistic fashion, with Rooney using dialogue to unravel the best parts of her characters’ emotional lives, in the hallmark of a natural writer.
The constant switch from omniscient third-person narration to the first-person emails between Eileen and Alice will please those who enjoyed the styles of both Conversations With Friends and Normal People, even if the correspondence drags at times. There is a slightness to the method that winks at the form of Victorian novels. The descriptions are similarly precise, with the price of a green blouse that Alice buys (she pays ‘six euro fifty’) being allowed as much attention as the taillights of a car that glow ‘red like coals.’
The literary ploys arguably go deeper. Could the floundering Alice be a reference to Lewis Carroll’s heroine who famously lost herself down the rabbit hole? In Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, there’s a scene where Esther Greenwood sits down to write a novel. She tells herself she will call her protagonist Elaine and counts the number of letters off on her fingers, finding pleasure in the symmetry between the two of them, which in turn mirrors the satisfaction the reader finds in knowing that the author’s Christian name also has six letters in it. Alice, correspondingly bears the same number of letters as Rooney’s first name. This is pushed no further, though, and we never get the first names of the protagonists in Alice’s books…
The self-examination in the emails, ranging from the narcissistic to the socio-political and historical, means that the novel even manages to out-Rooney itself at certain points. This, along with the various references to social media and mobile phones, will no doubt be met with chagrin by certain readers, even if the characters’ displays of awareness encourage discussions of how people (young people especially) can see themselves in relation to a wider world.
The novel hits its stride in the last third, when the main characters stay with Alice for the weekend. Past actions and epistolary confessions gather force as the four of them start to hold each other accountable for what feels like the first time. The weakest section is arguably the very end, when the story spins itself into a pandemic narrative and one of the relationships is wrapped up in a near-sentimental Mills & Boon bow.
The main disappointment is that the characters, who are meant to be thirtyish, have the emotional life of teenagers. Stylistically, however, Beautiful World, Where Are You? is flawless. Readers can hope that the semi-autobiographical elements in this novel have freed Rooney up imaginatively for her next fictional foray. For now, they will have to make do with the socially-distanced sensibility of her newest bestseller.
By Edward Heathman