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  • Writer's picturePhoebe Barker

Book review: Conversations with friends by Sally Rooney

Rarely does a book shake you awake and move you to tears the way breakout author Sally Rooney’s debut novel Conversations with friends did to me. And this is coming from someone who reads (and cries) a lot.

Her story is one of heartbreak; it latches on to the soft beating centre of your chest so deeply that when the story ends you don’t know whether to scream out in frustration or burst into tears. Like I said, I went for the latter.

The story follows Frances, a troubled student and poet (of course), who seems so far at a distance from real life that a tangible loneliness is conjured across the pages. Her character is fragile, nervous and discernibly difficult. She seems to drift in the space between happiness and sadness religiously, as if numb to her surroundings. That is, until she meets Nick. He is equally troubled, completely unobtainable and unsurprisingly, married. Naturally, she grows to love him madly, and her affections become a sore point that disrupts four intimate friendships.

“I kissed him. He let me. The inside of his mouth was hot and he put his free hand on my waist, like he wanted to touch me. I wanted him so much that I felt completely stupid, and incapable of doing or saying anything at all.”

Conversations with friends unfolds in the usual narrative of an illicit affair: the relationship begins tentatively, carefully and desperately innocently… and then both parties (in)conveniently fall in love all at once. It’s a story that has been told a thousand times: undeniable connection, star-crossed lovers, love triangles, betrayal, jealously, hurt and heartbreak. What separates this book from all the rest is Rooney’s approach to the characters, she conjures them up in very real terms. They are not there to be liked or disliked but simply to be believable. Their realness rejects the traditional boundaries of fiction, and creates a truly captivating story. Knowing the people in these pages is a gift from Rooney to us.

The relationship between Frances and Nick is tumultuous and toxic, but somehow between two suffering characters, there is a significant amount of happiness shared.

“When he spoke, his words were light but in his voice I heard a concealed emotion, which moved me. All right, he said. Well, you’ve suffered enough. Let’s just be very happy from now on.”

Rooney’s writing unfolds so naturally that the words feel as if they were written just for you. The writing is soft and deeply personal. The language is sensual and thrilling; relationships overlap and unravel in quick and messy succession. Longing and aching fills the narrative. There’s a lot of desperate sex and broken conversations between cigarette breaks. At times you can almost smell the smoke.

You become so intimately acquainted with the characters, particularly the protagonist Frances, that you could be forgiven for feeling embarrassed. But you don’t quite get there, because they are all undeniably human. They are real and relatable. I would credit a large amount of the success of Conversations with friends to the realist approach it takes. We are tired of reading about perfect, beautiful women and strong, emotionless men. Chaotic characters with internal conflicts rooted in the complex human condition are far more interesting. These are the characters we can understand and empathise with. These are the characters who remind us we are not alone. These are the characters who teach us about ourselves while simultaneously taking us away from ourselves.

The story is vivid and wild, even when the pace is slow there are no moments where you find yourself looking up from the pages. There is a bleak undertone throughout this story which leaves you feeling on edge. The sense that the characters are battling with the fear of the unknown and the ‘grown-up’ side of themselves is somewhat feral and raw.

“I realised my life would be full of mundane physical suffering, and that there was nothing special about it. Suffering wouldn’t make me special, and pretending not to suffer wouldn’t make me special. Talking about it, or even writing about it, would not transform the suffering into something useful. Nothing would.”

Rooney tackles toxic relationships, mental health and chronic illness with stark directness. Conversations with friends is distinguishable on many levels, but none more than its relevance to ordinary people living ordinary lives. It’s modern and quick to pinpoint what it’s like to be young, conscious and feeling in the twenty-first century.

The Guardian pitch Sally Rooney as the literary phenomenon of the decade, and so far, I’m inclined to agree.

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