Book reviews: Irish writer Sally Rooney's second novel Normal People a triumph

Normal People by Sally Rooney


Normal People by Sally Rooney is published in hardback by Faber & Faber, priced £14.99 (ebook £6.99). Available September 6

SALLY Rooney has a lot to live up to. Her 2017 debut novel, Conversations With Friends, was a runaway success. For it, she bagged the illustrious Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year prize. This meant the pressure was on when it came to writing her 'difficult' second novel – but Rooney's fans needn't worry, as Normal People is a triumph. I gobbled it up in one sitting – the compulsion to read it was too great to exercise an ounce of self-control. The story centres on the high school friendship of Marianne and Connell. It's a rollercoaster that will break your heart, but also fill it with joy and hope. The lead characters come from the same small Irish town, but have very different backgrounds. They move together to study at Trinity College, learning to navigate each other, society and Dublin with varying degrees of success. It sounds overblown, but we are so lucky that Sally Rooney is writing – her style spare, her approach to dialogue quite exquisite. I can barely wait for her third book.


Frances Wright

Transcription by Kate Atkinson is published in hardback by Doubleday, priced £20 (ebook £9.99)

IN RECENT years Kate Atkinson has turned out back-to-back modern classics with Life After Life and A God In Ruins, so Transcription was always going to have a steep hill to climb. Frustratingly, this gentle, post-war set spy thriller doesn't quite wheeze its way to the top. Juliet Armstrong's Second World War days as a MI5 operative, in a department that's arcane, ambiguous and dull (for both Juliet and the reader), are over, it's 1950 and she's working for the BBC, except she appears to be being followed. As her war experiences resurface and begin to slip into Juliet's present-day life, Atkinson explores the tediousness of British fascism, the very male limitations on her heroine's espionage aspirations, and a very drab London. There's no sexiness here, instead Transcription proves a tame, meandering tale that leaves you a little unsatisfied.


Ella Walker


Sea Prayer by Khaled Hosseini and illustrated by Dan Williams, is published in hardback by Bloomsbury, priced £12.99 (ebook £10.90)

THE photo of three-year old Syrian boy Alan Kurdi, who drowned while trying to reach safety in Europe in 2015 touched many people, including author Khaled Hosseini, best known for writing The Kite Runner. Sea Prayer are the words a loving father speaks to his sleeping son, telling how they came to be standing on a beach waiting for a boat that could take them to safety, or to their deaths. Aimed at all ages, it is beautifully illustrated by Dan Williams, who depicts the horrors of civil war as well as the joyous times that came before. The father is trying to reassure his child that all will be well and he will be safe, but the father knows how treacherous the sea can be – and all he can do is pray and hope. Hosseini, a Goodwill Ambassador UNHCR, the UN's refugee agency, is making a plea for people to be kinder to those fleeing war and persecution – it's a plea that cannot be ignored.


Bridie Pritchard


Amateur: A True Story About What Makes A Man by Thomas Page McBee is published in hardback by Canongate, priced £14.99 (ebook £11.99)

THIS is the true story of a man who decides to train and fight in a boxing match at Madison Square Gardens. Lots of blokes do this, of course, often for charity, perhaps as the ultimate accessory to their hard-working, fast-living lifestyle. But McBee is the first trans man to do so. After a slightly confusing introduction, the books settles down to a narrative about the build-up to the fight: training, setbacks, coaches, how McBee's wife-to-be notices he's changing. But McBee also uses the book as a lens to explore the dark side of masculinity. He notices that, when perceived by the wider world as a man, people more naturally defer to his voice and his opinions, and even he requires special vigilance not to talk over women. He discovers, too, that there is a tenderness at the bone-crunching heart of boxing – that men who have honestly confronted their shadow side, the urge to hurt, are capable of a kind of profound love. This account is interspersed with insights from a wide range of commentators and experts. It all adds up to a gripping and fascinating journey.


Dan Brotzel

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