I probably should have written this review right after finishing reading Sally Rooney’s latest novel, but I didn’t. I enjoyed devouring the book, reading it pretty much without interruption until it was done. I enjoyed the careful, considered distance of the narrator and the witty dialogue that seemed to take us one step further away from the novelistic concept of being able to read another’s thoughts. This is, however, countered by the inclusion of emails, written very much like letters, that pass between the two central female characters, Alice and Eileen, both in their 30s.
Alice is a novelist struggling with the pressures of fame who is recovering from depression and seriously uncertain about the value of writing, but at the same time eager to defend her art.
Eileen works for a literary magazine and despite being beautiful and super smart, is unable to generate enough self-confidence to write her own work and to control her love life.
Both women have love interests in the book, which take characteristically for Sally Rooney (and realistically) unstraightforward trajectories based on miscommunication and emotional baggage.
In between the dramatic scenes of courtship and friendship are rather tortured debates about politics, class and sex as well as passages of description that question the equivalence of Alice’s boyfriend’s work in a factory with her work at home on a laptop. Power and its misuses, the agency of a middle class literary folk, are all up for debate and there is a self-conscious level of introspection that is both fascinating and occasionally overbearing.
Can literature be political or not? Can it be a force for change or not? Can a novel about the middle classes for the middle classes ever affect the millions of poor and disenfranchised? What are readers really gaining from novels? No wonder Alice slipped into depression and each character at their kindest uses inaction, often mistakenly, as a way of trying not to cause offense.
Beautiful World, Where Are You is a thoughtful novel wrapped in black romcom. It’s compelling, questioning and provocative. I’m not sure if all her readers will love it as much as her previous work, but I think it takes all of her preoccupations into the lives of older characters whose wider interactions with the world make for a more nuanced and bleeker outlook. Have your fun and your sexual abandon while you can, people.
This probably doesn’t do the book justice, but I’m certain if you’ve liked her previous work, you’ll want to read this.
I’ll be reviewing The Books of Earthsea by Ursula K Le Guin next.