Rating: 4 stars
Gail Honeyman’s debut was on my radar because of the Women’s Prize for Fiction and The Reader’s Room March Madness Reading Challenge, but it was Weezelle’s review that persuaded me to push it up my list and reserve it at my local library.
The book begins with a quote from Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City, which was a good omen for me, having recently read and loved it. Unfortunately, within the first few pages, Honeyman describes workplace bullying, which gave me pause. It doesn’t matter that Eleanor can handle her colleagues’ unwillingness to accept her character traits, I don’t like bullying. It always makes me feel angry when I encounter it in fiction, even though I know it’s not real, and it set my nerves on edge in this book. The nature of Eleanor’s isolation and fantasy world also unsettled me because I wasn’t sure where Honeyman was taking it and whether Eleanor was going to be a figure of fun.
From the start, Eleanor made me think of a character called Mary on Coronation Street who came into the show as a figure of fun, eccentric and in possession of a rich inner life, misunderstood and mocked by other residents of the street. Mary has evolved over the years into someone with a quirky sense of humour, a kind heart, and a deep well of wisdom. She is strong because she has been through a lot, including an abusive relationship with her mother and being raped by a family friend. Thinking of Eleanor as being similar to Mary helped quell my misgivings.
Honeyman unpeels layers from Eleanor’s past to reveal how she has become the person she is. There are aspects to the way she engages with the world that made me cringe and want to look away, but there is more about her that made me root for her being herself in the face of conventional ideas of what is a social norm. And Eleanor is far from being conventional or a social norm.
There’s an incident in her past that is kept at arm’s length for most of the book. Both her life experiences before the incident and those that followed it have left Eleanor with a unique set of perceptions about the world. Her absolute conviction that she is the one who is on the right track make many of her observations laugh out loud funny, and occasionally caused me to think that she actually has a point. I offer up my favourite examples.
On seeing the engagement gift her workmates have bought a colleague:
Whoever had chosen the engagement gift had selected wine glasses and a matching carafe. Such accoutrements are unnecessary when you drink vodka – I simply use my favourite mug. I purchased it in a charity shop some years ago, and it has a photograph of a moon-faced man on one side. He is wearing a brown leather blouson. Along the top, in strange yellow font, it says Top Gear. I don’t profess to understand this mug. It holds the perfect amount of vodka, however, thereby obviating the need for frequent refills.
Oh to not know who moon-faced, blouson-wearing Jeremy Clarkson is and to be able to judge a mug bearing his objectionable likeness on the merits of its capacity to hold booze rather than its capacity to send a signal about the kind of person you might be through its possession and use.
On witnessing double denim for the first time:
I hadn’t considered that a suit could be fashioned from denim, but there it was.
I wondered why humans would willingly queue at a counter to request processed food, then carry it to a table that was not even set, and then eat it from the paper? Afterwards, despite having paid for it, the customers themselves are responsible for clearing away the detritus. Very strange.
Eleanor is pretty much spot on about a lot of things. I was going to say despite her naivety about the world, but thinking about it, the accuracy of her perception is down to the fact that she’s so unsullied by ‘popular opinion’.
As the narrative progressed, I found Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine thought-provoking as well as unsettling. It provides space to think about why people whom we label as weird or eccentric or crazy might be the way they are, and to reflect on the way that we interact with them on an individual and societal level. The parts that made me uncomfortable have the same root for that discomfort as TV shows like Britain’s Got Talent or X Factor, where people who are oblivious to how cruel others can be are exploited for cheap entertainment under the guise of being given the chance to be a star. I perceive a vulnerability in people like Eleanor, who don’t fully understand the world, and although Eleanor’s self-belief makes her seem strong, the fact that it’s a defence mechanism taken up as a consequence of trauma so awful that Eleanor doesn’t talk about it or acknowledge it means that she isn’t strong at all. She’s merely surviving, as the blurb on the back of the book points out, not living.
I enjoyed the way Eleanor’s life is rich in terms of intellectual stimulation, imagination, and openness to new experiences, and the way in which that openness leads to her life being enriched in a different way, through contact with other people who welcome and accept her.
Her workmate Raymond is equally excellent as a character. He reminded me of my husband, with his kindness and generosity of spirit. The romantic in me wanted them to get together from the off. I’m not going to let on whether they do or not.
Towards the end of the book, Eleanor starts to face the things in her past that she has been shying away from. Her experiences with her counsellor are beautifully captured. Honeyman gently unpicks the way parents, even loving ones, can negatively impact on the adults that their children become because of the way their own insecurities influence their behaviour. The parenting that Eleanor’s mother provided her with was abusive, but there were reasons for that. It was the underlying thread of child Eleanor being made to feel responsible for her mother’s happiness, to be a good girl, to not be any trouble that struck a chord with me, though. I had the same resonance with Jojo’s story in Sing, Unburied, Sing. It’s an element in Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City and in Margot Jefferson’s Negroland, too. When things like that happen, I’m never sure whether I’m subconsciously choosing books that contain themes I’m thinking about, whether the fact that I’m mulling something over means I’m more alert to it when it comes up in a book, or whether it’s all just coincidence. Probably a mixture of the three.
I especially enjoyed Eleanor’s progression from being rigidly self-sufficient and unwilling to show vulnerability to appreciating that, with the right person, it’s possible to feel vulnerable and comfortable at the same time. It also touched me when she realised that letting someone else take care of you from time to time doesn’t make you weak, and that being cared for feels good.
I found more than a little of myself in Eleanor Oliphant.
Surprisingly, because I love both books and music, I’m not often struck by the synergies between a novel and a particular artist or album, but Eleanor Oliphant made me think of The Cure and so I listened to Staring at the Sea from time to time while reading. The pairing worked well, for me at least.
I can hardly believe that this is a first novel, it’s so good. I really hope that it makes it onto the shortlist for the Women’s Prize for Fiction. I don’t always agree with their shortlisting choices.