There are a handful of authors whose every word I will read as soon as it’s published, and in the last couple of years, Sally Rooney joined that very short list.
Her new novel Beautiful World, Where Are You, released earlier this month, feels at first less assured and more self-conscious than the celebrated Normal People and Conversations with Friends. Although that kind of works: it’s as if the teens/early-twenty-somethings of the earlier novels hit 30 and thought, wait, what’s all this for? Why do I still not seem to have the knack of *living*?
What surprised me was how much Jesus, the Bible, and the “Christian mindset” feature in the characters’ quest for those answers. Eileen attends Mass and is startled to discover a parallel universe of people who sincerely seem to be “lifting up their hearts to the Lord” and who listen composedly to a “bizarre and freakish” story about a woman who pours oil on Jesus’ feet and dries his feet with her hair. “Is it really possible I witnessed such a scene, right in the middle of Dublin…?” she writes to her friend Alice. “Is it possible such things literally go on, in the real world you and I both live in?”
Alice, in turn, confesses that she has been reading the Bible and finding Jesus deeply attractive (“I ‘love’ him, though I’m well aware how ridiculous that sounds”).
It’s a reminder of how alien people’s “normals” can be to one another. More importantly, I think, it’s a reminder that we all – Rooney’s sceptical, anxious young sophisticates, and the silvery old ladies Eileen sees at church – share the same “real world”. We are fellow truth-seekers, mutually yearning for fullness. And Jesus’ offer of “life to the full” resonates beyond the walls of any church.