Unlike many books I read, I didn’t deliberately search this one out. I was at my favourite bookshop, in a hurry and in need of a new book to read (for me, life without a book at bedtime is not an option). It’s always interesting to start reading a novel without any expectations whatsoever other than, in this case, a sticker announcing it had won the 2017 Costa Award. Bit of a lucky dip, really.
In this case, I was immediately pulled in by the intriguing directness of the writing. It’s a first-person narrative that from the get-go leaves you in no doubt what sort of woman you’re dealing with: Eleanor Oliphant is slightly off the wall, strong-willed, oblivious to social conventions, obsessively self-sufficient, weirdly rational and totally alone. Gradually, as the story unfolds, you begin to discover that her extremely inappropriate comments and behaviour, her total ignorance of simple social conventions and her excessive consumption of alcohol all have a profoundly disturbing cause.
Misfit Eleanor works in the accounts department of a graphic design agency, where she’s the brunt of much office humour and gossip, which she completely ignores, rationalising it away as evidence of the stupidity and superficiality of her colleagues. It’s when she begins to develop an unlikely friendship with a new colleague, Raymond, a slovenly, cigarette smoking and irrepressibly friendly IT guy, that the story begin to unfold. As does her history. At the same time as this uninvited real-world connection is evolving, Eleanor is also inventing a delusional romantic future in her mind with the singer of a local indie band. The story also reveals the horribly problematic relationship Eleanor has with her mother, which ultimately comes to a very unexpected conclusion, partly with the help of a therapist Eleanor is surprised to discover she actually gets along with. Meanwhile, hints of Eleanor’s troubled past are sprinkled carefully throughout the narrative, building growing anticipation for a resolution that does not disappoint.
What I love is the way Ms Honeyman tells what is essentially quite a heartbreaking tale with delightful humour and compassion. Here’s a little snippet of the way Eleanor Oliphant thinks. This is when she’s preparing to go to a party with Raymond and realises she doesn’t have a gift for the host, Keith:
Gathering up the detritus of the previous evening, I noticed that I had failed to consume all of my vodka allocation; the best part of a half-bottle of Smirnoff was extant. Mindful of my gauche faux pas at Laura’s party, I put it in a Tesco carrier bag to present to Keith tonight. I pondered what else I should take for him. Flowers seemed wrong; they’re a love token, after all. I looked in the fridge and popped a packet of cheese slices into the bag. All men like cheese.
Needless to say, the gifts are not what Keith expected…
What is particularly beautiful about Ms Honeyman’s writing is that as Eleanor begins to change and the story nears it’s climax, the language changes too. Reflecting Eleanor’s emotional awakening, the phrasing and imagery become more poetic, more colourful, less literal. It’s such a subtle way of allowing the reader to empathise with the change Eleanor is undergoing!
The only problem I had with this book was that I had to put it down in order to get my requisite beauty sleep. In other words, it’s a great read to take with on holiday or to read over a weekend when you have no other plans… Highly recommended!
Click here to purchase the book in English and here for a Dutch translation (by Hien Montijn).