IT HAS taken just four years for Sally Rooney to become established as the voice of a generation: the novelist who lifts the lid on the lives and loves of young Ireland. Rooney’s previous novels feature people who party hard, engage frequently in sex that seems little more than a form of exercise, and have sloughed off the old Ireland of mass-going, frequent confession, and priestly power.
So, when Alice, one of the four lead characters of Rooney’s latest volume, Beautiful World, Where Are You, describes her friend Eileen, an editorial assistant at a literary magazine, and Simon, a political adviser, to Felix, a warehouse assistant whom she has hooked up with in a seaside town, Felix’s incredulity that Simon is religious is what the reader would expect. “He’s weird in the head or something, is he?” Felix asks.
But religion is not an amusing eccentricity for Rooney. In Beautiful World, Where Are You — named after a line from Schiller — there are the sexual liaisons that are staples of her fiction, but these are older, more troubled characters, heading towards their thirties and watching their peers settle down. Alice — a Rooney-like, highly successful novelist — does not like becoming a celebrity; Eileen feels stuck after years in the same job; Felix loathes his. But Simon heads off to mass on a Sunday morning and kneels in prayer at night, and Eileen and Alice are intrigued.
Rooney retains her wit, freshness, and style here, as well as her usual sexual explicitness, but her narration, and the lengthy email exchanges between Alice and Eileen, offer a new philosophical and sometimes theological approach to life, materialism, and the importance of beauty, as a possible route to God.
But it’s not so much the old version of Christianity, heavy with guilt, which appeals to Rooney and her thirty-somethings, but its thankfulness to God. The clerics who despair over Irish religious decline should take note.
Catherine Pepinster is a former editor of The Tablet. Her latest book is Martyrdom (SPCK, 2020).
Beautiful World, Where Are You
Faber & Faber £16.99
Church Times Bookshop £15.29