Books in the context of 2020: ‘Normal People’ and ‘Station Eleven’

By and Charlotte Grimwade

After a turbulent year, two of our Books contributors reflect on the novels they read in 2020 that held a striking resonance.

During the first lockdown of 2020, Sally Rooney’s Normal People was the book everyone seemed to be reading. With the highly successful television series depicting Marianne and Connell’s turbulent ‘will they-won’t they’ relationship through high-school and university, the novel became the perfect escapism during the unprecedented pandemic. 

It was the perfect novel to epitomise 2020

Perhaps due to the class disparities that became apparent during the first lockdown, Normal People became the perfect novel for young adults to relate to. Set in Sligo, Ireland and then Trinity College Dublin, the class differences between Marianne and Connell and how their problems manifest in the materialist differences between the two becomes a catalyst for conflict between them.

When Marianne quizzes Connell about Marx’s Communist Manifesto- only to admit that she hadn’t read it- her class privilege marks how she, unlike Connell, can never truly experience the hardships faced by the working-class even though she acts intellectually superior. In a time where the experience of the working-class during a pandemic is in marked difference to those of the middle-class, Marianne and Connell’s differences in access to intellectual property and experiences in elite environments mark how despite the similar circumstances; they can never be truly united in their struggle. It was the perfect novel to epitomise 2020. 


Elements of the book seemed scarily realistic back in March

Reading Station Eleven at the start of the first national lockdown arguably wasn’t the best idea; this piece of dystopian fiction details the global spread of a deadly virus and the stockpiling, paranoia and chaos that ensues. However, Emily St. John Mandel takes a new and interesting perspective on the international crisis, an emphasis on the arts, which proved to be surprisingly comforting this year. Although the novel follows several different interwoven plot lines, the most enjoyable one was that of the Travelling Symphony (a nomadic group of performing dramatists and musicians).

Their ability to encourage continued public enthusiasm for theatre within each of the crumbling towns they visit, at least provided some form of escapism and hope that humanity could prevail through disaster. If anything, this book isn’t really about apocalypse, death and destruction as it might appear on the surface; the most central themes cover the importance of art, memory and nostalgia for the past. Whilst elements of the book seemed scarily realistic back in March, Station Eleven definitely encapsulated 2020, not solely in relation to the pandemic, but also by demonstrating the reassurance that the arts can supply through deeper themes about human determination. 

Image: soomness via Flickr

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