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  • Writer's pictureAlan Bray

Mental Time Travel - Normal People

Normal People, I’m going to say, is a book of recollection. A story of two people, told from a future vantage point and ending in a way that indicates the story will continue. One of the chief ways the author gives this effect is in the use of time.

Time is handled in an interesting and skillful fashion. The reader notices right away that each chapter of the story is identified by a reference to a date and period of time. Thus, the first chapter is “January 2011,” the second chapter is “Three Weeks Later (February 2011),” and so on.

The story is episodic; it is told in episodes or discrete scenes. The scenes that occur in the present are told in present tense, those in the past, in past tense. There are also scenes that collapse time; they are in imperfect tense and signify on-going actions or thought.

Let’s look at how this works.

The fifth chapter is entitled “Two Days Later (April 2011), which we might note is four months after the beginning of things. “He stands at the side of the bed while his mother goes to find one of the nurses.” Present tense—the implied author is cueing us that we are in April of 2011, the action is happening right now and it’s from Connell’s perspective. It is not the reader’s present—more on this later. We could say that the narrator wants the narratee to accept that this is the present, the authorial audience knows that, as the book was written in 2018, the story is actually looking back, recollecting, if you will. More on this later.

Then without a paragraph break, a shift to an imperfect tense: “No one except Lorraine knows who Connell’s father is.”

And then a shift to past, again without any paragraph break. “He drove Lorraine to the polling station to vote at the end of February.” Here Connell is apparently remembering an incident that occurred two months before.

Then, “The other night Marianne told him that she’d thought he’d turned out well as a person…he wished he could tell Lorraine what she’d said…That her only son was not a worthless person, after all. That she hadn’t wasted her life.”

Then it goes back to the present scene at the hospital.

So, within two or three pages, without the visual cue of a paragraph break, the story has referred to four different instances (episodes) of time and space:

The present of Connell and his mother visiting grandmother in the hospital.

An imperfect time of thought about his father and mother, leading to—

A memory of driving his mother to vote.

A memory from “The other night,” of Marianne telling him he has value as a person.

A return to the present at the hospital.

I think we could say thematically that this passage is about Connell reacting to the encounter with Marianne in the context of being with his mother and grandmother, who tend to disconfirm him (or at least he thinks they do, or the book shows this). Marianne affirms him. But it’s told as four discrete events in time, it’s episodic. Complex and elegantly done.

But wait, are you saying the use of the present tense is an illusion?


After all, the story is written after the fact. Always, best beloved.

What affect does this use of time have?

The present tense, illusion or not, gives an immediacy to the writing. If the past tense refers to events that have already occurred, the present tense is about what’s happening right now, as the reader reads.

I think what Sally Rooney does in this book is to show a recollected story, much of it as if it were happening right now, even though it’s a recollection of episodes.

A recollected story elicits the retrieval of contextual information pertaining to a specific event or experience that has occurred (not that is occurring). It includes such features as visual imagery, narrative structure, and feelings of familiarity.

'Kay, this is from a cognitive psychologist’s description of episodic memory but it sure sounds like a description of a lot of fiction writing.

As I understand it, humans have two broad types of memory; we remember discrete facts like telephone numbers, names, directions, and we recollect episodes. These episodes are remembered as narrative stories and often as visual images. These episodes involve an emotional context, happiness, fear, sadness, etc. Dreams are like this too.

Fiction, with its use of narrative structure, emotional context, and visual imagery, is very congruent with human experience. At its best, we read a work of fiction and think, this is exactly the way I’ve felt.

And Normal People is a fine example of this, of getting very close to “normal” experience. The story accomplishes this by using the mechanisms of recollection that humans use in “real” life.

Till next time.

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