Recently, while reading Sally Rooney’s hugely acclaimed novels for the first time, I messaged a friend to say how bleak I was finding them. He replied that his impression of the books was different. In a way, we were both right.
On the one hand, the novels have shafts of light and humor; they contain beguiling meditations on the possibility of beauty; and they tend to conclude brightly enough, with the main characters about to squeeze through a crack in their circumstances toward possible happiness and fulfillment. On the other hand, Rooney’s bookish Irish Millennials are, almost without exception, given to profound unhappiness. The scrutiny to which they subject their inner lives, and the inner lives of their lovers and closest friends, is intense, almost self-immolating.
Bobbi, a character in Conversations with Friends, regards depression as a humane response to the conditions of late capitalism, and Rooney’s novels seem in part devoted to demonstrating the truth of this proposition. They enumerate the holes being punched in the younger Irish psyche by atomization, consumerism, and the internet—wounds apparent in survey after survey, and for which there is as yet no salve or remedy.
“Somehow he was expressing more emotion than at any time in his life before, while simultaneously feeling less, feeling nothing.”
“My body felt completely disposable, like a placeholder for something more valuable. I fantasized about taking it apart and lining my limbs up side by side to compare them.”
—Conversations with Friends
“I looked at the internet for too long today and started feeling depressed.”
—Beautiful World, Where Are You
Impeccable left-wing opinions—such as Rooney herself holds (she has said that she views the world mostly “through a Marxist framework,” and she turned down a bid by an Israeli publisher to translate her last novel)—are no salvation. If anything, they intensify the agony. Families, likewise, provide no escape: They are emotional battlegrounds where intact marriages are a rarity. And religion? Oddly enough, this is where things get complicated.
Rooney presents religion as one might expect from a chronicler of contemporary Ireland—up to a point. Her characters inhabit a society in which the ancient faith is a nullity, a ghost that scares no one, partly because no one notices it. One character finds funerals and weddings “comforting in a kind of sedative way,” their communality soothing to the “neurotic individualist”; otherwise, Mass is a childish thing consigned to the past, or else a duty fulfilled infrequently in the present.
Morals have gone the way of faith. One can scour the novels for traces of Catholic or post-Catholic repression and find none. Sex is like a carousel, with characters awaiting their turns to get on and off and on again, with partners of the same or the opposite sex, and with mixed emotional results. One Irish mother in a Rooney novel tells her son: “As long as you’re using protection, you can do what you want.” She speaks for the nation, you feel.
Yet other ways of seeing the world—however tentative—steal in. Frances, the protagonist of Rooney’s debut novel, Conversations with Friends (2017), reads the New Testament sporadically, oscillating between fascination and dismay, seeding the novel with curiosity about the figure of Jesus. Late in the story, Frances has a religious experience. On a December evening, in pain from endometriosis, she enters a church—her first time inside a church since childhood. She prays for help, conducts a slightly frenzied examination of conscience, and ascends to a near-ecstatic state of contemplation of the world and everything in it, before finally fainting.
The consequences of Frances’s time inside the church are uncertain, ambiguous, elusive. Her “experience of spiritual awakening” quickly deserts her. Then she reflects that a certain peace had come to her and wonders whether it was God’s doing after all. Just as quickly, she adds (in a somewhat garbled phrase): “Not that God existed in any material way but as a shared cultural practice so widespread that it came to seem materially real, like language or gender.” During the book’s final conversation, Frances wants to tell her on-off lover, Nick, about what happened in the church, but doesn’t. This near miss typifies the atmosphere of prevarication and precarity in which the characters live and into which religion must somehow find a way.
The BBC/Hulu adaptation of Conversations omitted the religious content of the book, and religious themes were muted in Rooney’s next novel, Normal People (2018). They return, intense and prominent, in Beautiful World, Where Are You (2021), where the mantle of Bible-reader is taken up by Alice, a successful young novelist recovering from a nervous breakdown. The Bible was the book she read in her psychiatric hospital.
Beautiful World also features Simon, a believing, practicing Catholic, though a rider, too, of the millennial sexual carousel. (He invokes St. Augustine: “Lord, make me pure, but not yet.”) On learning of the existence of Simon, another character, Felix, waits for the joke to be clarified—surely people like Simon do not really exist—and then pronounces, “I’m sorry, but he sounds like a headcase. In this day and age a person believes all that? Some lad a thousand years ago popped out from the grave and that’s the whole point of everything?” In a similar vein, a character named Lola messages her sister, Eileen, about Simon: “You’re not seriously going out with that freak are you . . . You realise he goes to confession right . . . Like he literally tells his bad thoughts to a priest.” Felix and Lola personify the circumambient mix of atheism, agnosticism, and indifferentism that now prevails in Ireland and requires articulation only when someone like Simon hoves into view. Their incredulity is generational.
But Beautiful World is also threaded through with tentative rethinkings of Millennial beliefs. Alice finds traditional marriage “obviously not fit for purpose, . . . but at least it was an effort at something, and not just a sad sterile foreclosure on the possibility of life. . .. What do we have now? Instead? Nothing.” Similarly, Eileen finds the nostalgic impulse not
intrinsically fascistic. I think it makes sense that people are looking back wistfully to a time before the natural world started dying, before our shared cultural forms degraded into mass marketing and before our cities and towns became anonymous employment hubs.
The religious undercurrents of Beautiful World surge to the surface in a scene at Mass. Simon and Eileen have known one another since childhood. They have been lovers, but never steady partners. They sleep together once again on a Saturday evening in Dublin. In the morning, Simon gets up and goes to Mass at a church a few minutes’ walk from his apartment. Eileen decides to accompany him.
It appears to be a fairly conventional Novus Ordo Mass. The congregation is small, and mostly old and female. Simon takes Communion. He kneels, prays, bows, blesses himself. Eileen looks on. Later, in an email to Alice, her best friend, she relives the experience: Simon remaining his usual self while saying out loud things like, “I have greatly sinned”; everyone repeating “Christ have mercy”; the priest reading about a woman’s pouring oil on the feet of Jesus; the sign of peace being exchanged among “all the silvery little elderly women.”
Eileen can barely believe what she has seen and heard. The “soft collective whisper” of “We lift them up to the Lord,” spoken without hesitation or irony, prompts her to ask: “Is it really possible I witnessed such a scene, right in the middle of Dublin, only a few hours ago? Is it possible such things literally go on, in the real world you and I both live in?” The previous day, she would have dismissed such things as “just a social ritual.” But now:
I feel that at least some of the people in that church sincerely believed that they were lifting their hearts up to the Lord. And I think Simon believed it. I think he knew what he was saying, and had thought about it, and believed it was true.
Eileen’s ruminations wend onward, trying to reconcile her disbelief in God with her “strangely romantic” experience at Mass.
For Millennials and Zoomers in the normal course of things, the facades of old churches might lend a touch of grandiosity to the Dublin streetscape. But, as for what goes on behind their doors, the same churches might as well be the “flats” on a studio lot. Rooney leads her readers through a portal into a forgotten but abiding world. Her two characters step into the stream of sacramental life as it flows through one Dublin church, then step out of it again, the better for it, into a world somehow washed clean:
On the street outside they were smiling again and their smiles were mysterious. It was a cool bright Sunday morning, the white facades of buildings reflected the sunlight, traffic was passing, people were out walking dogs, calling to each other across the street. Simon kissed Eileen’s cheek, and they wished one another goodbye.
Much later, in an aside, we learn from Eileen that she has been back to Mass: “I know, I know,” she says, speaking of herself in the third person, “she goes to Mass a couple of times and suddenly she wants to love everyone.”
The poet and playwright Jane Clark Scharl has spoken of the need for Catholic artists to inspire recognition of the import of Christian signs and symbols, of the reality of the sacraments, and of the eternal nature of the Church, in audiences who have encountered these things and, frankly, found them boring. The way to ignite interest, Scharl argued, is “through surprise.”
This, one might argue, is exactly what Rooney (who is not, of course, a Catholic artist, at least in any explicit sense) achieves. Eileen and Simon are sympathetic figures, full of good intentions and correct opinions, but frustrated and growing desperate. Readers follow them through the doors of the church and end up following the order of the Mass, perhaps for the first time in a long time, with Eileen’s commentary, mixing bafflement and attraction, framing the whole event.
The scene at Mass occurs shortly before the midpoint of Beautiful World, Where Are You. Later, Alice likewise makes her way into a church, this time in Paris, and again the novel begins to pulse with religious thought and feeling. Concluding one of the more sustained reflections on the person of Christ likely to be found in a contemporary secular novel, Alice tells Eileen:
I do love him and I can’t even pretend that it’s only the same love I feel for Prince Myshkin, or for Charles Swann, or for Isabel Archer. It is actually something different, a different feeling. And while I don’t, as such, really ‘believe’ that Jesus was resurrected after his death, it’s also true to say that some of the most moving scenes in the Gospels, and some of those to which I return most frequently, take place after the resurrection. I find it hard to separate the Jesus who appears after the resurrection from the man who appears before; they seem to me to be all of one being. I suppose that in his resurrected form, he goes on saying the kind of things that ‘only he’ could say, that I can’t imagine emanating from any other consciousness. But that’s as close as I get to thinking about his divinity. I have a strong liking and affection for him and I feel moved when I contemplate his life and death. That’s all.
Once lit, the flame of religious curiosity in Beautiful World does not subside. A few chapters later, Alice reflects on Catholic teachings concerning beauty, truth, and goodness, and confronts the classic postmodern dilemma: “To what standard are we appealing? Before what judge do we argue our case?” By the end of the novel, she is ruminating on whether she has turned into a Catholic (she hasn’t, she says, “as far as I know”) and is speculating about “heaven and angels and the resurrection of Christ.” And she is praying for her friends. Eileen, meanwhile, is pregnant and exultant, and once more wriggling out of past beliefs:
I could not stomach the idea of having an abortion just because I’m afraid of climate change. For me (and maybe only for me) it would be a sort of sick, insane thing to do, a way of mutilating my real life as a gesture of submission to an imagined future. I don’t want to belong to a political movement that makes me view my own body with suspicion and terror. No matter what we think or fear about the future of civilisation, women all over the world will go on having babies and I belong with them, and any child I might have belongs with their children. I know in a thin rationalist way that what I’m saying doesn’t make any sense. But I feel it, I feel it, and I know it to be true.
Beautiful World is dappled with small details that are almost ostentatiously redolent of Catholic practice and culture: The Bible that Alice takes to her psychiatric hospital is, she specifies, a “little Douay-Rheims translation”; the Mass attended by Simon and Eileen takes place in the Church of Mary Immaculate, Refuge of Sinners; the choir there is singing “Here I Am, Lord.” Apart, perhaps, from Dublin street names, Rooney tends to underload her novels with proper nouns—we are not given the name of the town in the west of Ireland to which Alice retreats for the duration of the story, or the titles of any of her other books—so these Catholic details seem to be a way of gently prodding critics and readers to acknowledge the position Catholicism holds in the novel.
Yet with notable exceptions—Brenna M. Casey in the Los Angeles Review of Books, for instance; Ciaran Freeman in America—reviews of Beautiful World contrived not to mention, even in passing, the saturation of large portions of the novel in religion and Catholicism. At the London launch of Beautiful World, held at the flagship Waterstones store in Piccadilly, the journalist who interviewed Rooney asked fourteen questions about the novel; not one of these questions addressed the issue of faith.
It cannot be the case that reviewers simply failed to notice the religious hunger expressed in so many passages, and the creeping regard for aspects of Catholicism. It seems more likely that they saw them but, frozen in surprise, not knowing what to say, they looked past them to more familiar Rooneyan themes of sex, anxiety, class, literary ambition, and the trials of late-stage capitalism. Perhaps the religious themes of Beautiful World, Where Are You will have their day in public discussion, though only after they have fully settled into private consciences.
“We must always tell what we see,” as Charles Péguy wrote. “Above all, and this is more difficult, we must always see what we see.” Sally Rooney sees that liquid modernity is full of those who are not waving but drowning. She sees the perpetual appeal of the figure of Christ and is prepared to think through, at least, the claim that this appeal is, at root, divine. And she sees that in some way, at some point, Irish Millennials and Zoomers (and the generations after them) will need to make their peace with Catholicism; they will need to ask, with Eileen, whether worshiping Jesus as God “is somehow permissible.” Otherwise, alienated permanently from their ancestral source of consolation and hope, they will remain tormented by homesickness in their own land.
Strange as it seems, then, Sally Rooney has sketched out a kind of future for the Catholic Church in Ireland. In this future, the Church, at the hour of its greatest impotence and marginalization—rejected, punished, despised, but remaining at its post—finds a slow and stumbling way back: back into the Irish way of life and back into hearts, minds, and souls in need.
John Duggan writes from Surrey, England.