Beautiful World, Where Are You by Sally Rooney
Beautiful World, Where Are You is everything Sally Rooney does so brilliantly, but her third novel also asks itself bigger questions about storytelling in a time of crisis
Alice is a novelist who has recently moved to a small town in the west of Ireland, following a stay in a psychiatric unit. She meets Felix, a warehouse worker, on Tinder and after a few awkward and almost antagonistic encounters, she – on a whim – invites him on a trip to Rome. He is by turns intrigued and resentful, considerate and deliberately hurtful. Meanwhile, her best friend Eileen is in Dublin working at a literary magazine. Having recently been dumped, she begins a flirtation with reliable, handsome Simon, who has been quietly in love with her for most of their lives. She’s too afraid to commit to him, while he harbours an almost painful hope that she will someday choose him.
In many ways, this is a more exterior novel than Sally Rooney’s previous work. An omniscient narrator elegantly focuses in and out on Alice, Eileen, Felix, and Simon dating, working, socialising, worrying, arguing, having sex, coming together and breaking apart.
This distance between the reader and the characters is broken every other chapter where Alice and Eileen discuss moral and political dilemmas like religion, morality, climate change and wealth inequality in long, essay-like emails. Here, we see how Alice is resentful that her wildly successful career has come with fame that she never wanted or asked for, and how Eileen is deeply unhappy that life at almost thirty is different to what she had imagined it would be at the beginning of their twenties. And through it all the two friends bicker, tease each other, talk about their love lives, confess their insecurities, and long for the next time they’ll see each other.
Beautiful World, Where Are You is everything Sally Rooney always does so brilliantly: absorbing, sometimes abrasive characters; unconventional romance; and beautiful, thoughtful prose. It also often feels like the novel is in conversation with itself, asking what the point is in a story about love, sex, and relationships, when humanity feels like it’s on the brink of disaster. What’s the point in anything really, when the problems that face us feel so insurmountable? How can the world still be beautiful while we’re in the process of destroying it?
Despite these questions, Beautiful World... is far from bleak, weaving in a thread of belief that what makes a beautiful world is the people we love, the people who love us back, and the art we leave behind.
Faber & Faber, 7 Sep, £14.99