On September 7, 2021, a whole lot of English-speaking literature fans rushed to the bookshops. Why? Easy: that was the day Sally Rooney’s third novel was published, after Conversations with Friends and Normal People (the latter was also adapted into a television series by Hulu and BBC Tree, while the former shall be adapted into a television series to be released in 2022).
Something tells us that Rooney’s new novel, Beautiful World, Where Are You, is bound to follow the same path, because its incipit alone makes it a literary work that can easily be transformed into moving images. Indeed, the book kicks off as a film. The camera moves slowly and lingers on details and gestures: she is waiting for him in a bar, checking her watch, we see her white blouse, we see him as he nervously fiddles with his cellphone, then over to a drop of beer trickling down the side of the glass. Their reactions are described as soon as they start talking, carefully tiptoeing across the minefield of what immediately seems to be a first date: she becomes somewhat nervous when she tells him why she’s living in that small seaside town; he looks at her, unmoved, and puts his glass on the table. The narrator describes the scene without interpreting it; we don’t know why Alice suddenly blushes, nor why Felix is worried about it.
What makes it even more film-like is the fact that the narrator sometimes is not able to hear what they are actually saying: Eileen follows Simon to the bedroom, he speaks but we can’t hear him because he’s shutting the door and leaving us out. So, the times we do manage to get inside the bedroom, sneaking up behind Alice, Eileen, Felix or Simon, we feel pretty much like voyeurs. We’re witnessing some very intimate and private moments, taking a look when we know we shouldn’t.
This narrative expedient Rooney came up with is the real new element, which makes this novel a little different from the previous two. This change of pace works well and suits Rooney’s style. It allows her to stage her choreography of physical, emotional and behavioural details while retaining her typical narrative minimalism.
Rooney seems to know perfectly how we behave, how we make new friends and try to keep old friendships going, how we fall in love and even how we have sex. It’s as if Sally Rooney herself has designed and created the human race. Bottom line: in Beautiful World, Where Are You, Rooney once again confirms – after her first two novels – that she is very talented.
Another focal point of the novel is inequality. Several types of disparities play a key role in Beautiful World, Where Are You: between Alice and Felix, between Simon and Felix and even between Eileen and Simon. There is an intersection of professional, economic, gender and sexual orientation differences. This is all carefully analysed and the litmus test for this study is the way the four characters interact with one another. This is what Rooney does best: she uses relationships, in all their forms, as the key for exploring the world and its problems, to show how many barriers we put (aside from the already existing ones) between ourselves and someone else’s love.
There is one more important, underlying topic: compassion. It is often intertwined with the frequent considerations concerning Catholic morals. If God isn’t there, who can deliver us from evil and guide us to what is good? How can we tell good from bad?
It is all up to the empathy that ties us to one another and makes us feel someone else’s pain and vice-versa. This is something that goes back to compassion, which is basically one of the threads running through Rooney’s three novels. In the end, Eileen and Alice realise that knowing someone very well also means you have a map of their weak spots, which means you know exactly where to strike if you want to hurt them. When they do realise, they cry and hug in a long embrace. This image tells us there is a form of salvation, which is completely giving yourself to someone else. It tells us that, in the end, we need love – in all its forms – to survive.