Sally Rooney’s debut starts a New Type of Conversation

The cover of Sally Rooney's debut, Conversations with Friends

Sally Rooney wrote Conversations with Friends whilst she was studying for a Masters in American Literature at Trinity College, Dublin, which is probably the ultimate form of procrastination. Ultimate, because the procrastination paid off. A year out of college, and the 26-year-old found herself caught in the middle of a seven-way tussle between publishers. It was Faber who emerged triumphant. Since the release of her book in May, Rooney has joined the ranks of a new generation of Irish writers (Sara Baume, Kevin Barry, Eimear McBride, Lisa McInerney) whose writing, seething with energy, has given rise to the popular notion that we are in the midst of a renaissance in Irish fiction.

Rooney does not so much subvert the themes that traditionally dominate Irish writing as sideline them. The book pivots around Frances, also an English student at Trinity, who writes and performs spoken-word poetry with her ex-girlfriend and best friend Bobbi. When writer and photographer Melissa profiles the pair for an arty magazine, they fall into her glamorous literary world, and Frances starts an affair with Nick, Melissa’s almost-famous actor husband. In this contemporary milieu, the quintessential alcoholic patriarch is replaced by Frances’s pathetic, peripheral, drink-addled father. The clutch of the Church is markedly absent, too, and Frances, who sometimes reads scripture, is part of a generation able to look at religion with a detached and scholarly interest.

Rooney doesn’t focus on the social strains surrounding the central lesbian relationship in the book—in fact, Frances’s mother says it’s a “real shame” when the girls break up. If sexuality is not an overarching tension, the possible consequences of sex are. Abortion is still illegal in Ireland and, with a referendum set for next year, the drive to legalize terminations is being driven by pro-choice movements like Repeal the 8th, who are rapidly garnering support both at home and abroad via protests, social media campaigns, and a drip-feed of headlines. In the United Kingdom, the Conservatives’ alliance with the stridently anti-abortion Democratic Unionist Party angled attention towards Northern Irish women; they face some of the most restrictive abortion laws in the developed world, and were not entitled to free abortions on the NHS until Labour MP Stella Creasy forced through an amendment in just 24 hours in June. Despite her success, the fact that a decade-long struggle was resolved in the space of a day sparked frustration that women’s rights were being politicized against the fractious backdrop of Tory-DUP dealmaking. It also still remains that some of the most vulnerable women, unable to leave Northern Ireland for myriad reasons, still cannot access abortion.

It’s natural, then, that the theme would shadow a story set in economically booming Dublin, where the characters’ freedom to have sex as much as they like, and with whomever they like, is accompanied by a glaring legislative lag. Throughout the book, Frances suffers from crippling menstrual cramps and, during one traumatizing trip to hospital, mistakenly thinks she is having a miscarriage. “The pregnancy was already over, and I didn’t need to consider things like Irish constitutional law, the right to travel, my current bank balance, and so on,” she thinks immediately, later sharing brittle, knowing jokes with Bobbi about the doctor, who left her cubicle curtain open and “didn’t ask me if I was alright”.

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Sally Rooney, author of Conversations with Friends

Rooney’s cast operates in a landscape where a progressive liberalism repeatedly clashes with Ireland’s old, eroding structures. Nick, Melissa, Bobbi and Frances are all hyper-intellectual, swapping definitions and social theories that are painstakingly sliced with irony. At one point, over a languid villa dinner in Provence, Nick wryly labels himself an oppressive white male. These are people who would be bemused (but intellectually intrigued) to be described as homophobic, sexist, or, equally, repressed. As Rooney whittles theoretical beliefs down to the everyday exchanges, a question hangs in the air: can they still be guilty of these things, despite consciously trying not to be?

Seeking to extricate themselves from the trite cliché of older man and younger mistress, Nick and Frances grapple repeatedly with how to navigate and conceive of their relationship. Nick struggles to shake his anxiety that a student has a hold over him and Frances, despite seeing herself as superior to such stereotypes, assumes Nick will simply drop her, and frames herself as the victim. To try and hoist themselves out of this deadlock, which embarrasses them both, they turn to dialogue, at which Rooney excels.

Slipping seamlessly among face-to-face conversations, email, text and instant messenger, Rooney creates an startlingly authentic representation of how we communicate today. Frances and Nick’s approach to instant messenger (barbed, acerbic, tactical) is instantly recognizable as a product of modern dating culture, where the beginning of a relationship is often played out online. Nick, feigning nonchalance, sends Frances casual emails carefully bald of capital letters and punctuation. Frances uses messages to construct a closed, cutting version of herself, leaning on flippancy to avoid emotional engagement. “I just don’t have feelings concerning whether you fuck your wife or not,” she says to Nick. “It’s not an emotive topic for me.”

Rooney’s skill lies in her ability to construct characters who will resonate, sometimes painfully, with her peers. Assiduously perceptive, and also intellectually arrogant, Frances’s relentless analysis often gives way to self-obsession, which results in a catalogue of errors in judgement. Nick is not aloof, but awkward and damaged, and unable to gauge the sweep of physicality Frances’s feels for him. Annoyed, because she feels she should be above anything so wholly predictable as hesitance and desire, she tries (and sometimes fails) to hide her lack of control behind tart one-liners.

Rooney’s exacting portrait of the pressure Frances feels to be smart, lacerating, and scornfully dismissive of vanity and vulnerability has rung true with her readers. So, too, has Frances’s inability to live up to her own expectations. In Conversations with Friends, Rooney has written a book not just about the complexities of desire in the modern age, but also the complexities of being a young woman, and having to deal with the varied consequences of desire, some of which still aren’t dubbed acceptable.Isobel Thompson

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