Sally Rooney entered the literary scene in 2015 with “Even if You Beat Me,” a nonfiction essay published in the Dublin Review recounting her years as a champion debater. A year later, Rooney made the jump to fiction with “Mr Salary,” a short story picked up by the literary magazine Granta and quickly shortlisted for the Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award, the richest prize of its kind. In 2017 Rooney released “Conversations with Friends,” her first novel chronicling the nuanced adultery that combines and recombines a couple and a pair of best friends. Rooney’s debut was met with electric praise, awarding her comparisons to both Salinger and Joyce and landing her in the VIP zone of the literary radar. For a year, we salivated. In Aug. 2018, Rooney released her sophomore novel, “Normal People,” in her home country of Ireland, where it quickly spread like rapid fire across the globe via social media and Amazon.
In the short span of three years, Rooney has evolved from essayist to fiction writer to “the first great millennial novelist.” Sally Rooney got a New Yorker interview in January, told The Guardian that she “do(esn’t) respond to authority very well” and has a 10-minute YouTube video on writing and Marxism. She’s a veritable cultural event, heralded for her bare prose, biting irony and slow burn of love in the time of late capitalism. Just check out what happens when you search #normalpeople on Instagram.
“Normal People” drops in the States on Tuesday, Apr. 16, and The Michigan Daily Book Review is celebrating by reviewing Rooney’s fiction career, last to first. Catch “Normal People” on the 16th, “Conversations with Friends” on the 17th and “Mr Salary” on the 18th.
At a slim 48 pages, Sally Rooney’s “Mr Salary” delivers a deliciously illicit and poignant love story. This is done in a fraction of the pages of her full-length novels like “Conversation with Friends” and “Normal People.”
In the story, Sukie returns home to Dublin from Boston to visit her dying father, Frank. She’s greeted at the airport by Nathan, her closest friend. Their interaction is heady with unfulfilled sexual tension. Sukie moved in with Nathan years ago after her mother died and her father lost all their savings to prescription drugs. Sukie was 19 at the time, finishing up her exams. Nathan was 34.
Due to the precarious nature of their relationship and the 15-year age gap, there was nothing sordid about their time spent living together. Nathan even jokes about their living arrangement. He says, “I’m not really getting my money’s worth, am I?” Despite this, Sukie falls deeply and irrevocably in love with Nathan.
“My love for him felt so total and annihilating that it was often impossible for me to see him clearly at all,” Sukie said.
He was there for her when no one else was. Now, they’re on the edge of the inevitable.
As a Marxist, Sally Rooney explores class tension through character relationships in “Conversation with Friends” and “Normal People.” The socio-economic stratification serves to magnify the power imbalance between her characters, adding another conflict to her already tension-packed stories. Rooney doesn’t deviate from this theme in “Mr Salary,” weaving a deeply layered and complex relationship in under 50 pages.
“Mr Salary” has a simple plot, but it’s Rooney’s realistic writing and profound themes that elevate the book into a work of art. It’s not often that I find myself laughing and crying in the span of a single paragraph. It would’ve been easy for Nathan and Sukie’s relationship to fall into perversity, but it’s balanced by a fated tragedy. Their uncertain romance — will they or won’t they? — is framed with the pervasive atmosphere of death.
“Nothing inside my body was trying to kill me. Death was, of course, the most ordinary thing that could happen, at some level I knew that. Still, I had stood there waiting to see the body in the river, ignoring the real living bodies all around me, as if death was more of a miracle than life was.”
Sally Rooney’s “Mr Salary” is dense with metaphors, picturesque scenes and passages worthy of being mounted against a living-room wall. “Mr Salary” does more than touch on the intricacies of a forbidden relationship: It adds substance to innermost thoughts of new adult living in the 21st century. It’s easy to relate to “Mr Salary” as a junior in college, worrying about my future but still tightly holding on the optimism of my childhood.
Like “Conversations with Friends” and “Normal People,” Rooney leaves “Mr Salary” open-ended. There are elements of melancholy juxtaposed with sentimentality. Sally Rooney, at just 27 years old, manages to masterfully convey these two sentiments. Weeks later, my thoughts still circulate back to this story as if Nathan and Sukie are my own friends. It’s the best short story I’ve read this year. It’s perhaps the best story that I’ve ever read.