At the beginning of Sally Rooney’s striking new novel, Beautiful World, Where Are You, we are in a hotel overlooking the Atlantic sunset at the beginning of a Tinder date. You could think for a moment that we are on Cape Cod, or in the Hamptons. After all, Rooney’s previous novel closed with the upwardly-mobile Connell pondering an MFA in New York. Then, as the scene comes into focus, a waitress asks a man named Felix how he’s “getting on” as he orders a vodka tonic and a lager. We are, of course, in Ireland.
Sally Rooney is from Ireland, and she writes almost entirely about the lives of Irish people there. Most of the people who like to talk about her books acknowledge this fact. Some even note that she is from Mayo, in its more remote West, or that lots of her work takes place at Trinity College Dublin. The curious thing is that, at least in the Anglo-American reception of her novels, these small acknowledgments are typically as far as any analysis goes.
Rooney’s books have been picked over like no other crossover literary fiction of the past decade. She is “a portraitist of her Millennial generation,” a chronicler of gender, authorship, debating clubs, bisexuality, wannabe-Marxism, class: of all the subjectivities which govern our relationships with one another. Irishness has remained mostly incidental to these readings, often nothing more than a factoid tying her together with other Irish women writers like Megan Nolan and Naoise Dolan. Ireland — hers, and her characters’ — is usually bereft of any significance.
Next to Sally Rooney on the English-language bookshelves of Europe and America, you might see women like Lucy Ellman, Ali Smith, Anna Burns: women who are in one way or another known to be writing about the nation, the divisions and categories it produces, the dark avenues down which contesting claims to nationhood can lead us. Rooney, we have all agreed at some point, is not doing anything like this. But in failing to look for the nation in these books, we fail to see Rooney’s stories in all their richness.
It is a fact of capitalism’s monoculture that the lives of young overeducated people in London, Dublin, and New York — and in many cities beyond them — fundamentally resemble each other in most ways. We spend most of our income on rent and transport, we use the same three or four apps, and live through the same fads of small-plate restaurants that leave you hungry, and taxi apps that you use once instead of Uber and then they email you forever. It is no surprise that Rooney is almost as storied a figure in Hackney and Brooklyn as she is in the city her work examines. Readers in all of these places can see something of themselves in the extortionate universities, incompetent mental health services and damp flats of Rooney’s Dublin.
But capitalism’s monoculture is a regulative ideal, something those in power are striving toward, rather than a reality. London and New York are not central to Rooney’s novels, but always peripheral. In Beautiful World, London is a “kip” mostly known as a place to get literary awards. New York is where you might do an MFA you don’t know how to fund, and the pretext to a nervous breakdown. While reading Rooney’s work, it remains valuable to ask: what makes Dublin different? What makes Ireland different?
The backbone of Beautiful World is a series of florid email exchanges between longtime best friends Alice, a successful author, and Eileen, a struggling editorial assistant. It is in one of these early conversations Alice offers an answer to the question of what makes Ireland, and Dublin, so different: “Dublin is, and I mean literally and topographically, flat — so that everything has to take place on a single plane,” she writes. It’s true: Dublin is a remarkably low-rise city, much more easily demarcated by its streets than by its (non-existent) metro stops or its (mostly non-existent) skyscrapers. Rooney’s novels sketch a slow map of Dublin: Characters are always walking down Bridgefoot Street on their way to Usher’s Island, crossing Nassau Street, meeting on O’Connell.
It reminds me of writer Rosa Lyster’s summary of the Irish in the Paris Review: they are always making “an absolute meal out of how they got from one place to another.” Most summaries of Beautiful World will start with the very Roonian fact of its four distinct characters whose lives progressively interlock. But you might instead say the book is about distance, about getting from one place to the next. Every other chapter is an email between Alice and Eileen, who have spent a long time apart. After a fame-induced breakdown, Alice is in the rural West of Ireland in an old rectory, where an absent artist is letting her stay; Eileen is in a bleak Dublin flat. At the end of most of their emails, which sweep in scope from Proust to the age of plastics, they climb back down to the minutiae of when Eileen might visit the strange old house: “should I make up two bedrooms or one?” Alice writes. “It looks like a combination of trains and taxi journeys might work,” Eileen suggests.
In the last section of Beautiful World, Alice, Eileen and their respective love interests — Felix, a warehouse worker, and Simon, an Oxford-educated Catholic socialist, finally gather in Mayo, in the West of Ireland. The emails cease, and the characters begin to speak not in painfully-drafted abstractions about lost communist futures and the exploitation undergirding the modern meal deal, but with drunken short tempers and blunt questions about each others’ real lives. Writing in The Guardian, Anne Enright suggests some readers “will wonder why it took so long” to get there. Felix, always probing, wonders the same to Eileen: “I mean, you live in Dublin, it’s not that far away.” Part of the answer might be that particularly Irish predilection, of fussing over journeys and visits and drives. Another, of course, is that Alice and Eileen have grown emotionally distant across their 20s, the distance between them a holding pen for this unacknowledged truth.
But this distance has more to it. A friend of mine says that places feel further apart in Ireland. I think this is true. Mayo and Dublin are roughly as close together as Manchester and London; they are closer together than Boston and New York City. But moving between them usually involves a car, and always involves moving across a whole island, in all its cultural differences. More than thin women or silver chains or vague millennial politicking, this warped sense of distance is the axis of Rooney’s three novels. In Conversations with Friends, posh Dubliner Nick’s first text to the younger, less urbane Frances acknowledges that his family “used to have a holiday home” out West. In Normal People, Connell finds that contemporaries at Trinity College Dublin “often mention the West of Ireland as if it’s a foreign country.” In Beautiful World, Alice constantly misreads the social atmosphere in her temporary hometown.
In smaller places, smaller distances seem larger. This is true of the differences between people, too. In Normal People, Marianne is conventionally beautiful, but slight distinctions, like her crooked teeth, leave her a social reject in her small-town high school. But Marianne’s place in Rooney’s sexual and aesthetic scheme is the source of great ire. In The White Review, Helen Charman writes that Marianne’s “conspicuous thinness is a narrative device that leaves a sour taste.” In The Point, Becca Rothfeld jokes: “in a Rooney novel […] you will never be […] God forbid, overweight.” There are entire broadsheet op-eds on whether Rooney’s across-the-board thinness is in the public interest. The sense among the critics is that Marianne’s brittle beauty becomes an unearthed Victorian artifact left unexamined by the author, there to help propel a 19th-century romance through the 21st.
I registered Marianne’s porcelain outsiderness as doing something else: as telling a story about the quintessential oddness of small-town Irish life, where minor aesthetic divergences like the absence of fake tan, wearing a loudly patterned dress, or the fact Marianne doesn’t “put make-up on [her] face,” will quickly have you labeled goth or emo. Contrary to what people outside of Ireland seem to think, it is entirely plausible that Marianne, with her plain attitude towards clothes and makeup, would be thought unattractive in a high school in rural Sligo.
To this point, a recent Tweet was cathartic for many more sartorially adventurous Irish: “Props to anyone who tries to be fashionable in ireland i wore a red beret once in waterford and someone called me super mario.” The replies are full of people in shiny jackets being asked about their spaceship, someone in a furry hat being asked how strong the rouble is. Marianne is someone rural Ireland has marked out in such a way. Her relationship with the handsome and popular Connell is always traversing this strange and contemporary social boundary, not simply reproducing an older one for thrilling sexual effect.
Popular confusion around Marianne is not the only time I have felt a disconnect with the Anglo-American readings of Rooney’s books. Many reviewers note, some with contempt, the way that her characters fling around fashionably leftish political labels: In The Point, Rothfeld sees Normal People and Conversations not as “political novels but novels with characters who are lightly politicized,” the outcome one of unchallenging novels which serve, as she argues in a separate essay in the journal Liberties, “to make us feel proud that we share [their] ethical assumptions.” There is a sense that in Rooney’s work political labels are floating around, not going anywhere, interpreted as “‘sanctimony”: Marx-ish words that signal to readers that these romance novels they read are part of something bigger, something political. This reading might help in explaining the global popularity of the novels, but such uncommittedness indeed has an air of Irishness about it.
Political flimsiness is not, for one, unique to Rooney’s sharp millennial protagonists. Frances’s mother is “a kind of social democrat.” Connell’s is vague about who she’ll vote for, but is “interested in Cuba and the cause of Palestinian liberation.” Nick doesn’t really talk politics but at one point concedes he is “‘basically’ a Marxist.” The Republic of Ireland is almost unique as a Western European country in that it has a small and fractured organized left that has never held major power. In the last decade, the Republic has seen a sea-change of social progress, from episodic referendums on abortion rights and equal marriage, to issue-based movements around water charges and housing and a surge in votes for Sinn Féin, a left-wing party whose central project is opposing the border which splits Ireland into two.
But it remains a place in which left-wing sentiments do not find easy institutional expression. It’s a place where, as Rooney put it in 2017, “the deterioration of the power of the Catholic Church was replaced pretty much wholesale with the power of the free market,” a chronology leaving scant space for the development of strong left-wing institutions. These characters aren’t (only) sanctimonious millennials: they are people of all ages searching for political answers, trying to place their progressive values in an historically conservative country. Simon’s half-formed answer is to work as a parliamentary adviser for a small leftist grouping in the Dáil, perhaps as much an article of faith as his deep Catholicism.
In Beautiful World, such quintessentially Irish considerations often seem far away. At first, it is as if Rooney has given over to her global success by speaking entirely globally. Alice and Eileen are deeply political, but speak in broad strokes of “transitioning collectively to a sustainable model,” of the “impossibility of political action.” They have very little engagement with domestic politics, and certainly do not discuss the Irish border or use Irish-language words. They are far from Normal People, whose characters were meditative on regional inequality and the weirdly isolating existence of the upper-class Irish. Connell mulls over “‘two entirely separate existences” between home and Dublin, and rich outcast Marianne almost guiltily “doesn’t know the name of the river that runs brown and bedraggled past the Centra.” A great deal of Connell and Marianne’s early romance took place idling around in a ghost estate of half-built houses. These were a common feature of 2010s Ireland, all sites that were abandoned after the 2008 crash hit Ireland’s property-fueled economy particularly hard and building contractors packed up and left sites overnight. Hundreds remain across the island, all graves of Ireland’s Celtic Tiger (the period of unprecedented economic growth across the ‘90s and early aughts, which collapsed into a decade of austerity).
But as Beautiful World runs its course, Ireland comes unmistakably back into view, and rigid formalities disintegrate as friends gather in the remote West. The book’s Irishness is like its professional jealousies or its sexual tensions: bottled up for almost too long, then relieved in one moment. As a friend’s party draws to a close, the old Irish songs come out. The often-chippy Felix sits down to sing Irish folk classic The Lass of Aughrim. Somewhat forebodingly, it’s the song that, in Joyce’s Dubliners, sets well-heeled Gretta into a grief spiral about erstwhile lover Michael Furey who worked in the gasworks and gave his life for her — and was from the West of Ireland. The working-class Felix shocks the famous Alice with his hitherto-hidden singing talent, brings her to tears, then quips to her, “It’s only in Dublin you meet tone deaf people.” It is one of a few choice moments where the novel appears to offer a tentative answer to its titular question: a direct acknowledgment of the slow loss of Ireland’s oral tradition and Rooney’s most clear nod yet to the Irish literary and musical canon. You might reasonably say that Felix is papery and flitty until then, a device for a sense of beauty and place in service of an urbane middle-class whose lives often lack both. But it is nothing short of baffling that the New Republic’s Jennifer Wilson can read this section then write, “rather than give us a glimpse into what might constitute working-class culture… Felix appears to exist in a cultural void.”
Rooney’s work has universal appeal for a reason, but it retains particulars. Her novels are not things to be explained by a few Irish interlocutors to an obedient Anglo-American audience. We would not want to absorb the idea, so scorned by Alice, that “an individual’s membership of a particular identity group is a question of unsurpassed ethical significance.” All that is here is a simple claim: Rooney’s books happen in a particular place. Her study of relationships is all the more rewarding when you give that place a name. Its name is Ireland: Sally Rooney is Irish.
Sean O'Neill is an Irish writer based in London.