It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what it is about Sally Rooney’s writing that makes it so special, but her latest novel Beautiful World, Where Are You (Faber and Faber 2021) is yet another example.
Featuring four friends in Ireland, the book describes the minutiae of their days – and how these add up to the sum of years of experiences – in a way that is intimate, exploratory, questioning, curious, and which interrogates the confronting emotions of the characters such that as readers, we find ourselves also asking big questions about how we are and the way in which we move through the world. Is the world beautiful, Rooney asks? And if so, where does its beauty lie? Is it in the small moments of kindness and compassion and understanding, or is it in the larger achievements of global significance and human change? Is it in the esoteric nature of artistic endeavours or in the physicality of labour-intensive work? Is it love or is it friendship? Is it desire? Loyalty? Ambition? Success? Spirituality? Compassion? Generosity?
All of these questions and more are explored through the lives of Alice, a famous novelist, and Felix, who works in a warehouse and travels to Rome with Alice on a whim, along with Simon and Eileen who have been friends and/or romantically involved since they were adolescents; Alice and Eileen have been friends forever.
The book is written through emails between Alice and Eileen, interspersed with narrative sections from many different perspectives. This is somewhat confusing at first, as the style is simple, with no indication of what is dialogue and what prose, and sometimes it’s tricky to determine who is speaking, and to whom. But once you relax into the style, it somehow doesn’t matter, because the importance or the message of the novel is in what is being conveyed, not necessarily by who is saying it. The whole novel is a stream of consciousness communication about what it means to be young (but not too young, and being aware of growing older), and determining what it is that is important in the world, and whether you can find something to believe in. Some sections cover such banal interactions and yet the accompanying thought processes are like little lights coming on automatically as you move through the story; yes, that’s what I’ve always wondered! Hmm, I’ve pondered exactly that. Rooney examines self-doubt and self-worth, and the value of work and art and friendship, in an everyday yet subtly intellectual conversation that connects readers with their own feelings and asks them to question their own perceptions of the world and the beauty within.
I am not alone, this book says. I am not alone in my doubt, my crises, my uncertainties, my selfishness, my hopes, my desires, my fears and my yearnings. I am not alone in being misunderstood. I am not alone in wanting connection.