Sally Rooney: a talent that’s not up for debate

The pleasures of Conversations With Friends are many. It is richly, rivetingly insightful on love and life, on society and the mind

In the opening pages of Sally Rooney’s Conversations With Friends, Frances, our narrator and protagonist, meets Nick, the married man who will become her lover. This is how Frances describes that first encounter:

“Her husband was in the kitchen doorway. He held up his hand to acknowledge us and the dog started yelping and whining and running around in circles.”

If you wanted to read something into the second part of the second sentence you might say that the feisty dog gives us a bit of symbolic foreshadowing, but, overall, there’s no sense from Frances’s neutral observation that time has stood still for her, that the camera has zoomed forward on its tracks and that the earth has moved under her feet. A little further down the page we’re told Nick has “a big, handsome face”. Okay – so she recognises his good looks, but we’re not exactly getting the feeling, at this point in the story, that she’s smitten.

What we do perceive at this early point is that something special is happening in this novel. A certain tone has been established – a certain tone – and with it the character of our protagonist. With the clearest, lightest sentences we’ve been led quietly to that momentous crossing of paths, and its absence of drama, let alone melodrama, is in keeping with what we already know of Frances. (Think of how a lesser writer might have dealt with that moment: time standing still, the camera zooming forward on its tracks …) She’s, at least on the surface, calm, and she’s open-minded, and open to new experiences. We suspect she’s calm because she’s brilliant and, as with the most advanced brains, she sees the good in humans.


We also grasp that she’s not worldly, but then Frances herself recognises that. Whatever comes her way she’ll deal with it on its own terms, but with the insight to know that life is a trial. She’s calm then, too, because she knows it’s wise to be calm; she knows it pays to be cautious in a world of uncertainty – to move forward in an episode of life, as in a story, in certain, firm steps. The sentences proceed crisply. I can’t recall finding a semi-colon in the entire novel. One gets the impression Frances is trying things out as she tells her story, setting off on a sortie.

And is there something else to her certainty? Does she sense immediately, and despite their ages, a power dynamic in which she can be comfortable – that is, a balanced one, or even one that puts her in control? This book club will no doubt debate, as others have debated, whether the power between Frances and the older Nick is lopsided one way or the other, or whether it flip-flops throughout the book, and whether, generally, the relationship is wholesome. I don’t think much of a case could be made for Frances being a helpless and ingenuous party, though.

Sally Rooney is an astonishing rhetorician, an absolute Gatling gun of multi-clause sentences

The pleasures of Conversations With Friends are many. It is richly, rivetingly insightful on love and life – on intimate and complex relationships, on society, on the life of the mind. And it’s proof that a plot need not be convoluted and packed with cliffhangers – merely packed with recognisable life buffed up to revelatory truth – to keep us rapt and turning the pages. The four main characters – Frances, Bobbi, Melissa and Nick – are complex and more real than most people you’ll ever know, and Frances and Bobbi in particular comprise one of the most memorable partnerships in recent fiction. And the dialogue is a wonder – beautifully paced, beautifully spaced. There’s one passage in particular (page 251 to 254 in my edition), that I wasn’t happy to move on from until I’d read it twice, just to savour every beat.

Everyone’s making a big deal of Sally Rooney’s (relative) youth, and the reason they’re doing so is she writes like someone twice her age (albeit one who’s uncannily clued into how a couple of clever twentysomethings think). When I first read that Sally was born in 1991, I didn’t know what made me more depressed: the fact that Sally was only 26, or the realisation that 1991 was all of 26 years ago. I’m sure it annoys her, the fuss that people are making about her age, because she’s been writing brilliant stuff – poems, essays and stories – for years and must feel she’s been doing this for yonks.

You can read a smattering of her other work online. Mr Salary, the story that almost won her the world's richest short story prize, is to be found on various platforms. There's also her marvellous essay, Even If You Beat Me, for the Dublin Review, which reminds you of Sally's previous life as a champion debater, even a celebrity debater – the best in Europe for a while. As she mentions in that essay, her prize-winning debates are up on YouTube. I looked at one of them for the first time the other day. She's an astonishing rhetorician, an absolute Gatling gun of multi-clause sentences. I don't know how she does it, or did it. It occurred to me that she possesses the most powerful and useful talent any human being could have: to be able to obliterate another human being in argument.

And yet, she gave that life up. She mentions, in the essay, that to debate well requires “flow”. As I understand it, that means connecting the logic and reason part of your brain directly to the verbal part of your brain, and dulling the part of your brain that scans and naturally slows down the movement of this information. And this, she says, was partly why she quit debating. Because while mastering this skill results in dazzling rhetoric, it doesn’t necessarily result in honest thought and expression.

I wonder if Sally’s fiction and poetry is an exercise in flexing that part of her brain the debater Sally purposefully blanked out – the scanner that would rather take things at its own pace, that would measure every word, that is inclined to interject, that maybe isn’t so sure, that wants to push forward on its own in the dark. “Exercise” is too dry a word though. We certainly get, in Conversations With Friends, in Sally’s sentences, in Frances’s thoughts, those expertly wrought steady-yet-brittle sentences, but we get, in whole, so much more. We get the lives of these characters, fully exposed.

Gavin Corbett is the author of three novels, the most recent being Green Glowing Skull. He is set to take up the post of UCD writer-in-residence for 2018.
Sally Rooney’s Conversations With Friends is November’s Irish Times Book Club selection. During the month, we shall explore the work through a series of features. Sally Rooney will be in conversation with Laura Slattery of The Irish Times on Thursday, November 16th, at 7.30pm in the Irish Writers Centre, Parnell Square, Dublin 1. Admission is free. The podcast of the interview will be available on November 30th.