It’s a cliché to say it, but true nevertheless: Sally Rooney has very swiftly—almost in the blink of an eye—become the defining voice of her generation. In the past couple of years, I’ve had more conversations with more people about her than any other author I can think of. I wouldn’t dare claim her for the Sunday Times, but I do take pride in the fact that the newspaper was one of the first publications to spot her extraordinary talent.
The Sunday Times Audible Short Story Award (then sponsored by EFG) reads "blind". Her entry for the 2017 prize, Mr Salary, which made it on to the shortlist, when she was just 26, was the first time I had heard of her or read her. It was, too, I think, the first time she had been in the running for any sort of major award.
The story, I can see now, is very recognisably Rooney-esque: intelligent, acute, happy to explore the everyday with real depth, daring about its young protagonists’ feelings, exposing about their psychology.
Later that year, she entered and won the Sunday Times/Peters Fraser & Dunlop Young Writer of the Year Award, in association with Warwick University, for her début novel Conversations with Friends (Faber). Again, we’re talking firsts: the prize was the first major literary award she won. She was also the joint youngest winner, along with Zadie Smith.
Those two works share with Normal People (Faber), her second novel and this year’s winner of The British Book Awards’ Book of the Year, certain recognisable and deeply admirable traits, ones that have made her chime with so many readers: a deceptively easy style; a deep but generous and easy intelligence; a desire to put on paper in as truthful a way as possible the realities of everyday life for her young characters; and, above all, a fierce determination to explore with real depth and bite the psychological truths of her characters, and the sometimes terrifying uncertainties of their lives. Rooney spent a lot of her first novel trying to put on paper the reality of a life lived through Twitter and Facebook; in Normal People she broadened that out significantly to explore, among other things, class and emotional damage.
Rooney—who is still only 28, remember—was up against stiff competition to win this Nibbie. I never, though, had any real doubt about her carrying off the award. She thoroughly deserves it.
And the exciting thing about her, of course, is that this, really, is just the beginning.