Diehard Sally Rooney fans are going to love the Irish author’s brand new third novel, Beautiful World, Where Are You. As with previous books, it examines the complications of human relationships – romantic and otherwise – in a trademark observational style, although this time, like Rooney herself, the characters are a little older.
Not like old old, though. They’re turning 30. And with no husband or children on the scene for either of them, they seem to have the sense that their lives are as good as over.
Our two relentlessly melancholic protagonists are best friends from school who grew up to lead very different lives. Eileen is an editor for a literary magazine, making barely enough to live on, while Alice is a millionaire celebrity novelist, which sounds vaguely familiar…
Yes, it’s impossible not to draw the similarities between the character of Alice and Rooney herself, and we gain a little insight into how life must have changed when the author was catapulted into mega-fame in her twenties. Alice’s life is a glamorous-on-paper one of seaside mansions and book signings at Italian literary festivals, all described with the jaded cynicism of someone who has reached the summit early, only to find it cold, lonely and full of jerks. “If novelists wrote honestly about their own lives, no one would read novels – and quite rightly! Maybe then we would finally have to confront how wrong, how deeply philosophically wrong, the current system of literary production really is – how it takes writers away from normal life, shuts the door behind them, and tells them again and again how special they are and how important their opinions must be.”
The story is told from three different perspectives; Alice’s and Eileen’s old-fashioned letter-style emails to each other, and an omnipresent third person – and let me come back to why this part is interesting.
In the emails, the women alternate between discussing the two men they are respectively involved with, and deeper issues of faith, politics, beauty and humanity, all with the general, very ‘now’ theme of the world being utterly doomed.
The difficulty here is that both women’s voices are identical. The emails are hyper-analytical, philosophical ramblings that read like essays, which make me wonder why Rooney didn’t just write an essay instead. Many times I had to skip back to the start of the email to see who in fact was writing it. Nothing distinguishes one character from the other besides her profession, and I couldn’t tell them apart until two-thirds of the way through the book. This doesn’t bode well for a feeling of investment in the characters, although later on we do get to know them and ultimately care for them.
But back to the third person, and a truly masterful use of it. Rooney has nailed the skill of following two characters simultaneously, with a sort of split-screen effect which is quite unique. One of my favourite passages describes the moment the door closes behind two characters and we, the reader, are left outside in the hallway, hearing only muffled sounds of their conversation. As is her wont, Rooney’s most jaw-dropping moments are those that are the most recognisably pedestrian.
Beautiful World… is more descriptive than I remember either of Rooney’s previous books to be. There are some stunning passages, one moment zeroing in on mundane minutiae (“two bowls have been left in the sink, two spoons, an empty water glass with a faint print of clear lip balm on the rim”) then suddenly zooming out to observe clouds, the moon, the ocean. Always through that very cool, very Sally lens of simplicity, of course. It’s baffling how in merely noting common domestic objects she gives them life and stories of their own. Meanwhile the zoom-outs serve to remind us that time continues to pass, the earth to spin, the tides to sway, with no regard for our dreams, desires and general confusion. That’s ultimately what this book is about; our dream of life and how to reconcile it with gargantuan external factors beyond our control. To me this is summed up beautifully in a musing from Eileen’s mother, observing her two daughters; “To think of childhood gave her a funny queasy feeling, because it had been real life once and now it was something else. The old people had died, the babies had grown old. It would happen also to Eileen, also to Lola, who were young and beautiful now, loving and hating one another, laughing with white teeth, smelling of perfume.”
Beautiful World, Where Are You by Sally Rooney is out now