Beautiful World Where Are You, Sally Rooney

Yes, that’s a very undistinguished cover. Will it affect sales? No, of course not. But look at me! Slips of paper marking passages to quote. Not me at all since uni days.

On Friday I had to buy books for birthdays so I was always going to pick up the new Sally Rooney. Unfortunately, Saturday I had work. A quick trip to Geraldton (440 km), load four pieces of roadworking machinery, home the same day. Good theory! At 6am the truck wouldn’t start, phoned my usual mechanics, no answer; phoned Volvo, they finally picked up at 7.00, long weekend, busy etc., maybe they could come out the week after next; phoned my mate Kevin whose paddock I park in, he got up and came out and offered to swap out the starter motor. 10am I was on my way.

Got to Geraldton where the roadworks were in a residential beachside subdivision, made my way through streets and tiny roundabouts with two trailers (not three, thank goodness); the road crew had all gone home the night before but had left me the keys, they said; two problems, where were the keys, certainly not where they said they would be, and this was machinery I had never driven before in my life. By the time I found the keys it was getting on for dusk. I dropped my trailers, found a motel which wasn’t booked out for the long weekend, settled down in front of a TV and the Grand Final (AFL football); and after, made a start on Rooney.

Next morning, Sunday, I set up my trailers, drove the bobcat and three road rollers very slowly up the ramps, steel rollers slipping and sliding even with rubber mats to provide friction; strapped and chained them all down. Five hours! Too many tourists at the three or four stops on the highway home for me to bother queuing for dried out chips for lunch. Home in the evening, well Millie’s, but she was having meat pasties (smelt lovely) so I made do with toast and cheese.

Today, Monday’s a public holiday. I never have any idea when WA is having a public holiday, let alone what for, I think the Queen has already had her birthday. I should be using the time to do truck stuff. You know, crawl around underneath and look industrious, but I put that off and read Rooney instead.

She is undoubtedly the best writer in English since DH Lawrence.

The story is of a writer, Alice, thirtyish, a brilliant success on the back of her first two novels, living in a big house in Galway after a breakdown; her best friend since college, Eileen, a poorly paid editor with a literary magazine in Dublin; Simon, five or so years older, a back-room, presumably left of centre politician, loving/friends with Eileen since she was 15; and Felix, a thirtyish guy, warehouse worker, who in the first chapter meets Alice on a Tinder date. She takes him home, they don’t hit it off, but as they live in the same small coastal town, they must inevitably meet again.

The story is carried forward by marvellously distant third person prose with no internality at all;

On the platform of a train station, late morning, early June: two women embracing after a separation of several months. Behind them, a tall fair-haired man alighting from the train carrying two suitcases [Alice, Eileen, Simon]. The two women unspeaking, their eyes closed tight … for a second, two seconds, three.

by chapters which are entirely one email from Alice to Elaine or from Elaine to Alice; and by their speech, their (infrequent) phone calls, their texts and the exchange of photographs, just as you might expect in 2019-20, the year before and then, in the final chapters, the year of, the plague.

The emails in particular consisting of the deepest introspection and philosphising, hence the comparison with Lawrence. On sex, for instance –

To me it’s normal to meet people and think of them in a sexual way without actually having sex with them – or, more to the point, without even imagining having sex with them, without even thinking about imagining it. This suggests that sexuality has some ‘other’ content which is not about the act of sex. And maybe even a majority of our sexual experiences are mostly this ‘other’… Our ways of thinking and speaking about sexuality seem so limited, compared to the exhausting and debilitating power of sexuality as we experience it in our real lives.

And also, on God. But no quotes! Simon is both a good person and a Roman Catholic. The others are not. There are discussions on the possibility of Good and Evil without God. Alice comes round to thinking there must be ‘something’. There are hints that the Beautiful World of the title, the possibility of Goodness, is hidden, “concealed beneath the surface of life, not unreality but a hidden reality”.

The plot itself is straightforward and unimportant, perhaps at the end a little trite even. Couples come together, misunderstand each other, step apart etc., etc. Rooney writes feelingly about the burden of success. But the writing, the exploration of character, of what it means to be thirty and on your way or not on your way, of relationships, of ideas, is brilliant.

.

Sally Rooney, Beautiful World, Where Are You, Faber, London, 2021. 337pp.

40 thoughts on “Beautiful World Where Are You, Sally Rooney

  1. I didn’t care for Normal People so am not likely to be rushing to read this one sorry.

    You do have some adventures when you venture out in your truck Bill. Is there a shortage of drivers in Aus like there is in much of Europe? Companies are paying large bonuses to get people to join them because demand far exceeds supply. so this week it caused panic buying of fuel and empty pumps. sigh…..And the government solution – bring in the army

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    • The truck driver ‘problem’ in the UK (and the US) is that huge numbers of immigrant drivers are used in order to keep wages down. Brexit and to some extent Covid-19 have shut off that supply of drivers in the UK. In Australia we have used some immigrant drivers ( a lot from NZ) but not enough to seriously reduce wages. Our problem is that since the 1980s there has been only a trickle of new drivers entering the industry, particularly long distance, which means most drivers look like me, old and grey, and very soon we will all be gone, more or less all at once.

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      • Whereas we currently have a shortage of mechanics / technicians (as it sounds like you might have experienced with your Volvo people) because most of them are immigrants (from India and Philipines). We are now paying finder’s fees and bonuses for people who stay for 6 months, but it’s not enough money to compete with packages for FIFO in the mining industry.

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      • It wasn’t until Covid that it became apparent just how much demand for labour was being diverted to workers on temporary immigrant visas. It seems that bosses will do anything except train young Australians and pay higher wages to get their hands on the workers they need.

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  2. My retired brother from General Motors in USA got trained and worked as a bus driver in his retirement. The problem they are having there he says, is with so much legalized marijuana in the states they can’t find drivers with clear drug tests. Everyone smokes it and therefore not allowed to drive commercial vehicles. I really enjoy your “on the road” stories. When I read Normal People I didn’t like it at all. Found it tedious but looking back on it, I can’t forget it. I think I was not in the right headspace for it which happens and if I were to read it again I think I’d enjoy it. This second book does appeal to me so I might have a go at it, once I get through a pile of other ‘required’ reading for book groups and shared reading and things that take priority. Keep those stories coming and love both your journaling and your book tales.

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    • It really hadn’t occurred to me that widespread ‘smoking’ might have that effect. Here, truckies are only rarely tested. Unlike mineworkers who are tested daily for alcohol and randomly for drugs. As you say, everyone smokes, I wonder if the mines overlook residual marijuana.

      Thank you Pam, I will keep reading and writing as much as I can. There never seems to be any shortage of things going wrong for me to write about. I can’t tell if you will like Beautiful World but certainly all its elements appealed to me. I hope you say something about it when you do read it.

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  3. Glad you enjoyed the book! Personally, I think there are better Irish writers out there’s no doubting she’s good at her craft and has tapped into a slice of the market that had been ignored for a long time (ie what it is to be a millennial woman in the modern world) but now everyone’s doing it and it feels like every second new release is about a young woman having a hard time in life, love and labour.

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    • In Kim Kelly’s book which I reviewed last week, the publishers she worked for were suddenly enthused about a work they had previously disparaged because it would put them in the same space as the Next Big Thing. I guess all the publishers would love to find the next Sally Rooney.

      I though all books were about “having a hard time in life, love and labour”. You might have noticed Alice (Rooney) complaining that she couldn’t make a start on book 3 until things started to go wrong again after the spectacular success of 1 and, more particularly, 2.

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      • Maybe they are… but there’s a fashion for publishing books by young women about young women and I’m so over it. I am deliberately hunting out books by men at the moment because I’m not sure I could cope with any more female millennial angst. Publishing has been pushing for diversity and yet they keep putting out novels that all feel the same. There was a good article in the Guardian about this earlier in the year. It was arguing that new male voices were being excluded and while the market is correcting itself after centuries of female voices being silenced, we need to find a balance. Must see if I can hunt it out.

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      • I’ve had a lifetime of reading books by men about men and I’m quite happy to find myself at this late stage in a woman’s world. Of course, I limit my reading of new releases so I’m probably the last to notice fashions in writing/publishing. Good luck with your search, perhaps Mike McCormack has another.

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      • That’s a great article thanks Kim. If I wasn’t working this weekend I might even have written a post about it. I certainly agree with whoever said that after 6,000 years hogging the cultural limelight (white, middle class) men can let women have a go for a while.
        It’s interesting though that you fell woman-writered-out. I’m not, but I am moving on to Indigenous and Black writing for that newness feeling as well as, in my own limited fashion, to Asian and African.

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  4. My younger, Gen Z colleague found this book ‘problematic’ but because we haven’t had any shifts together since this lockdown began, I haven’t been able to tease out what her concerns were. However, Mr Books and I have just started the tv series of Normal People and I am being reminded of how well Rooney captures this often tortuous young love phase. I’m looking forward to reading the Beautiful World to find out for myself!

    I loved the truck photo sequence – forgive my ignorance, but were the 2 pics with a piece of machinery straddling the divide an aesthetic choice or something to do with balance?

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    • I don’t think Beautiful World will film so well, simply because less happens – maybe an arthouse movie with lots of talking. For me Rooney writes about the world as it is – messy relationships and lots of wondering about stuff (Though no-one I know writes such articulate emails as Alice and Eileen).

      The sequence was to illustrate the difficulty I had getting the ‘little steel’ roller up the short, steep ramp from the lower deck to the upper deck of the rear trailer. I put the ‘multi’ behind it to stop it sliding back, then, when it was up (and over the very narrow gap to the front trailer), I put the multi halfway up the same ramp so there would be room behind for the ‘big steel’ roller (which you can see if you blow up the final picture, taken after I got home).

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  5. “Today, Monday’s a public holiday. I never have any idea when WA is having a public holiday, let alone what for, I think the Queen has already had her birthday. I should be using the time to do truck stuff. You know, crawl around underneath and look industrious, but I put that off and read Rooney instead.”

    This paragraph had me in stitches for many reasons. I lose track of if there is a holiday and why and whether I have the day off or if I’m just supposed to nod. As for crawling around looking industrious, I think many of us are guilty of this very experience! Side story: my grandpa lost a tooth when he was a young man, but he didn’t have insurance. So, the next day at work he crawled under a vehicle and started banging around to make lots of noise and then yelled “OW!” He pretended he’d lost the tooth at work so the company had to cover it.

    I love how much you enjoy Rooney’s work, but for some reason the plots never appeal to me. I feel exhausted by stories in which twenty-somethings just can’t get it together, especially in a relationship. However, based on what you’ve shared about yourself, I know you went through many significant relationships, so I wonder if you feel seen in Rooney’s work. I met Nick when I was just shy of 21, married him when I was 24, and we’ve been together since, so it’s just a different trajectory.

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    • All the public holidays I have in my head are Victorian. Western Australia by and large has the same holidays, but on different days. I mean, why would you shut Perth down on a day when all the rest of Australia is open! Even Labour Day, which is often my birthday, is on the second Monday of March over east but on the first Monday in WA. I still haven’t found out what WA was taking time off for this week. Victoria doesn’t do public holidays in September (well it didn’t when I was at school). It does though take off the first Tues in November for a horse race.

      I did finally go down to the truck this morning and do industrious stuff. Luckily Kevin turned up so all the airlines I was swapping around actually got fitted. I also dropped one trailer at a mechanic’s rather than service it myself. Truck driving is a brilliant job because you mostly sit in an armchair and listen to books while the truck does all the work. (Good grandpa story. I hope your dad and brother now have a health plan. I do, but it’s not keeping up with my failing teeth).

      The books I enjoy most ARE all about that twenty/thirty-ish relationship stuff. I wonder if that’s it? I am constantly rehashing my old failures and occasional successes. You’re a perspicacious woman Melanie GTL.

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      • Thanks Pam, so it was her birthday after all. I have the June one fixed in my head too. I wonder if she’s forced to celebrate each one. I had four fiftieth’s and it was quite wearing.

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      • Ha, I laughed at the horse race comment. In Michigan they finally decided to close public schools on the first day of deer hunting season (rifles) because so many students would be missing they had to ask what was the point of teaching.

        Both Biscuit and my sister-in-law have good insurance plans, which means their spouses (my dad and brother) are covered.

        I hope you have a great rest of the week and all your doo-dads get fixed, Bill. When something on a truck breaks, everyone is thinking, “Time is money!”

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      • Noooooo…. Bill. Labour Day in NSW and ACT was today, the first Monday in October. Melbourne is March, as you say. It correlates with Canberra Day here, which is the second Monday in March.

        Queen’s Birthday is June in the ACT and NSW.

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  6. A couple of weeks ago, Brandon Taylor was on the NYT Book Review podcast to discuss this one and his way of talking about her books would appeal to you, I think. He’s on #TeamRooney too. I feel like I’m simply attending the game, I enjoy them, but I haven’t jumped in with both feet. But whenever I see one of her books, I think about how much you adore her! 🙂 [I would ask if you’ve seen the series of Normal People, but I know you haven’t. I thought they did a fine job with it!]

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    • How embarrassing! I’m a fanboy.
      I thought when I put the book down, I’m going to write this review right now, so it’s about what I feel rather than what I might later think. Well, there isn’t any doubt about how I feel, is there?
      I suppose the TV series should work, after all Jane Austen films quite well without car chases and gunfights. I wouldn’t be ready to watch Beautiful World as film just yet, I think I would be too aware of all the ‘thinking’ that was left out.

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  7. I like the idea of the emails due to my immense fondness for epistolary fiction, and it sounds like it’s done really well here. It definitely makes Rooney’s work more appealing. Thus far, I haven’t been that keen to read it – partly because it’s absolutely everywhere over here and swallows up a lot of the airtime I’d like to see given to a wide array of books, but also because stories of 20s-30s relationship angst don’t especially do it for me no matter how well told they are. I used to have a friend that was in and out of love every week, always with someone who was uninterested in her and/or a complete disaster, and exposure to that constant drama has really put me off reading about it!

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    • On the other hand, I like the email chapters because they are not too much like letters. Really, they’re just a clever way of slipping in to first person POV. I understand not wanting to be overwhelmed by the hype, and that is in fact why I let most Australian new releases wait a year before I think about reading them (with the exception of two or three favourite authors).

      There is more to Beautiful World than just relationships – though I may well be more like your friend than I should admit – Rooney is growing up and is thinking about what that means, to be a mature adult, to be on your way in life, career, love, as she and Simon are, and Eileen and Felix are not, in life and career anyway.

      The ending, as I wrote, is a bit trite and I would not be surprised if her next works are about thirtyish people struggling with their marriages (I have no idea about her personal life. Which I think the weekend newspapers did discuss recently, but which I ignored)

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  8. Late again. I actually saw this post come through the day it came through and was all set to comment when something – no idea what – happened. I think it’s partly because I haven’t read Rooney yet, so wasn’t sure what to say, and maybe it was dinner time or something so I went away and never did come back.

    Likening her to DH Lawrence isn’t going to make me rush to her. For some reason, I feel I’ve done Lawrence and don’t want to go back. I wonder if I would feel differently if I did actually go back? BUT, I’m with you. I’m not tired of millennial stories, not that I’ve read a lot recently, but I don’t really have a problem reading about their angst. It’s quite an angsty time in life, and I have millennial children. They are their friends are interesting to me. And, I liked the way you described how the story is told.

    This made me laugh: “There never seems to be any shortage of things going wrong for me to write about”.

    Like the others here, I like your truck and journaling stories. Wish I had something interesting to journal about. Or, perhaps more accurately, I wish I write interestingly about the daily things that happen in my life but I’m just too prosaic.

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    • You’re forgiven WG. One of my earliest posts (My Career Goes Bung, in 2015) had its second comment this weekend and an interesting discussion ensued. There’s no such thing as too late.

      I’m a big admirer of DH Lawrence, though he doesn’t seem to be one of the Greats any more. I keep meaning to do another Lawrence in Australia post – I have the books I need – but I never get around to it. And I’d love to have the time to re-read some of his central works, esp. Sons & Lovers.

      Truck drivers spend a lot of time telling stories. It’s how we let each other know that we know the right way to do things, as well as how to deal with the fact there’s always part of your truck or part of your load about to fall off, or some idiot doing something idiotic right in front of you; or some boss who wouldn’t know a truck if it ran over his foot.

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      • Thanks, Bill, I agree, there’s no such thing as too late, but still…

        No, Lawrence has gone out of favour hasn’t he? I’d be a bit interested to read sons and lovers again, but probably only if my reading group did it. I think he got the sense of place and time really well.

        Haha re truck drivers’ stories, particularly the last about bosses. I remember being told early in my driving career that truck s can’t brake as quickly as cars so be careful overtaking one, or stopping suddenly in front of one.

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