Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine (2017) is an award-winning first novel by Gail Honeyman, that made a celebrity’s book club reading list, may soon be turned into a movie, and yet completely escaped my notice. It’s thanks to the Stewart Hall Book Club that a copy landed in my hands. That was certainly recommendation enough for me, and so I brought it home with thoughts of being entertained…and maybe more.
Eleanor Oliphant, of course, is not completely fine. The reader knows this very early on in the novel, and, though it takes her a little longer, Eleanor comes to understand this too. Eleanor is the narrator, which makes the reader privy to her inner monologue, but not to her most private thoughts and feelings, and so, there remains a cloud, an uncertainty about her.
Born in 1987, Eleanor is barely 30 and yet, she speaks like a 19th century schoolmarm. At times, it felt to me like Emily Dickinson had escaped her reclusive life in Amherst, Massachusetts and found her way into Honeyman’s Scottish novel. At others, I wondered whether Arthur Conan Doyle might not have expressed himself just like this:
“I didn’t often interact with my colleagues in this informal, chatty way, which gave me cause to stop and consider whether I ought to make the most of the opportunity. Bernadette’s fraternal connection to the object of my affections—surely it would be the work of moments to glean some additional, useful information about him from her? I didn’t think I was up to a protracted interaction—she had a very loud, grating voice and a laugh like a howler monkey—but it was surely worth a few moments of my time. I stirred my tea in a clockwise direction while I prepared my opening gambit.”
Gail Honeyman makes a strong choice in giving Eleanor such a voice, but it doesn’t always work. In the first few chapters of the book, Eleanor’s very sharp, judgemental and idiosyncratic speech makes her rather unlikeable, and even slightly tiresome. At least that was my experience. And because it’s all the reader has, it makes it difficult to create a mental image of her. What’s with this woman? It takes a bit of travelling alongside Eleanor in her very insular and lonely life to eventually hear the humour and pain in her voice. Once that happened, I was hooked.
Most of the reviews and discussions of the novel place the theme of loneliness at its core, and author Honeyman agrees wholeheartedly. In fact, her novel is prefaced by a lengthy quote from Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone.
There’s no doubt that Eleanor’s life is lonely, circumscribed and austere, though she describes it as self-sufficient, adequate to her needs and of her own making. At the graphics design firm where she works for a boss named Bob (it’s the only job she’s ever held), she’s the one who’s good with numbers, and so she spends her days at her work station keeping the accounts tidy. When work is done, she heads home alone, to her spartan flat, and re-enacts a daily ritual that includes eating pasta with pesto and salad, then reading a book or watching television before going to bed. Her weekends are begun at Tesco Metro (a very well-known British supermarket chain) where she purchases the wine, vodka and frozen pizza that will see her through to the next Monday.
Early on, there isn’t a lot to love about this character, but that may be because we can only see her as she sees herself. And this is only one of the tragedies of Eleanor’s life. Fortunately for her, there is love and kindness everywhere around her, if only she can learn to recognize and accept it.
The first step comes when Raymond Gibbons, the young I.T. expert where Eleanor works, pulls her into a small human drama taking place in the street: an elderly man has collapsed there and Raymond has come to his aide. When he sees Eleanor passing by, he calls to her for help. The old man’s name is Sammy Thom, and coming to his aide is Eleanor’s first step away from a life of isolation; or perhaps it came just before, when she chose to put her trust in Raymond.
With Raymond, Eleanor begins visiting Sammy in the hospital, and discovers his family, and his happy life. There are several scenes in the novel depicting moments when Eleanor and Sammy are together, and the loveliest of these is just after Sammy has reached out unexpectedly:
“I felt the heat where his hand had been; it was only a moment, but it left a warm imprint, almost as though it might be visible. A human hand was exactly the right temperature for touching another person, I realized. I’d shaken hands a fair bit over the years—more so recently—but I hadn’t been touched in a lifetime.”
Of course, the reader wonders how this is possible: what has happened to Eleanor in her short life?
Gail Honeyman scatters clues throughout the novel; many very early on, and not subtly. In the very first page, describing her job, Eleanor says:
“Bob, the owner, took me on not long after the office opened. I suppose he felt sorry for me. I had a degree in Classics and no work experience to speak of, and I turned up for the interview with a black eye, a couple of missing teeth and a broken arm. Maybe he sensed, back then, that I would never aspire to anything more than a poorly paid office job, that I would be content to stay with the company and save him the bother of ever having to recruit a replacement […]”
Because Eleanor is our narrator, this terrible memory is immediately swept away, unexplained, as she moves on to a detailed description of the office layout.
The blurbs in the novel’s book jacket describe it as: “Beautifully written and incredibly funny”, “a fascinating story about loneliness, hope, tragedy and humanity” and “A charmer…satisfyingly quirky”.
For me, these are unacceptable, reductive representations of a novel with much darker and serious content. There are almost two novels here: the first, the sweet, funny and compassionate story of a lonely, single woman finding connection and love in places she never thought to look; and the second, the story of a profoundly traumatized woman whose ability to overcome a horrific and catastrophic childhood is made possible by the kindness of strangers and her own extraordinary resilience.
I don’t think the novel can be both. What we quickly know about Honeyman’s immensely affecting, damaged and lovable Eleanor is that a government appointed case worker visits her twice a year and has been doing so since 1999; that her voice suffered severe damage early in her life; that she has never previously been touched, only beaten; that she has a large scar on her face; that her hands, red with something that passes for eczema, always seem to be burning; that she has weekly conversations with Mummy, who is one of the most devastatingly malicious fictional characters I’ve ever encountered.
All these signal that her retreat into herself is more than just a story of loneliness and isolation, and made me want to cheer all the more as she gradually learns to recognize the kindness and love offered to her by Raymond, his mum, the girl at the Bobbi Brown makeup counter, Sammy Thom and his family, the corner shop owner, Mr. Dewan, who keeps a worrying eye on Eleanor’s vodka consumption and finally, Maria Temple, the psychologist who guides her safely through her deeply distressing, formative past.
These are the people who awaken Eleanor to her own worth and to the heart that beats inside her.