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.