Beautiful world, where are you by Sally Rooney
Life, beautifully observed and written, in a story that is insightful and gripping.
Rooney is at her best looking at life and its meaning through the lens of privileged, intellectual thirty-somethings and their relationships - in this case Alice and Eileen.
Alice, a young Irish novelist who has experienced a meteoric rise to literary acclaim, is trying to make sense of what this means to her as a writer. Overwhelmed by media pressure, she escapes to a rural retreat where she meets fragile, straight-talking Felix, a warehouse worker. They start a relationship, and she invites him to accompany her to an event in Rome.
Alice’s best friend Eileen, a junior editor working for a literary magazine has experienced, the mirror-opposite to Alice’s success. Having reached the age of thirty, on a minimum wage and living in rental accommodation, Eileen feels she is a failure. She is also attempting to come to terms with her relationship to the understanding, and religious Simon who clings to his faith like a life raft, in the face of his own, and Eileen’s indecision.
The story is told partially in the third person, as if the author is detached and merely describing a scene. It is an unusual narrative style that focuses the reader’s attention on the interactions between the characters and what is going on inside their heads. Other chapters are based on emails between Alice and Eileen. These emails, often philosophical, try to make sense of their relationships with each other, their families and lovers, and their wider interaction with the world around them. What seems to meld together these two ways of experiencing the story, are the sex scenes between the two couples - sensitively written and explicit, the physicality acts as a foil for the novel’s reflective content.
Superlatives are routinely attached to novels, many of which will be forgotten in ten years’ time. However, I suspect that this novel will be remembered. It captures the feelings of helplessness of a generation trapped in a state described by Rooney as a ‘general systems collapse.’ One where historic frameworks for living, proscribed by church and state, have failed to deal with the social impact of institutional collapse, climate change and the global pandemic. Rooney describes this as a time when ‘cataclysmic historic events’ structure our present sense of reality’. As a panacea to this sense of helplessness, Rooney’s character Alice harks back to Marxist ideologies that focus on the common good.
Although the author claims that this is not auto biographical, there are direct parallels to be drawn with Rooney’s recent personal experience, and this perspective brings a depth and raw honesty to her writing. Rooney bared her soul in this thought-provoking and insightful read. Arguably, her best work yet - it is a novel that I would highly recommend.