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Having reviewed over 1200 books on this blog, I have now written two myself. Motherdarling is a story about a search for a missing Will which reveals long-hidden family secrets. The Kids of God is a thriller set in a dystopia ruled by fascist paramilitaries. Both are available as paperbacks and on Kindle through Amazon. I live in Canterbury, England. I lived for more than thirty years in Bedford. Having retired from teaching; I became a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Liminality. I achieved my PhD in 2019. I am now properly retired. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Tuesday, 5 September 2017

"Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine" by Gail Honeyman

This story is narrated by Eleanor Oliphant, an office worker in her early 30s. She lives alone, so alone that she drinks vodka to block out the weekend. Why? At first we don't know but she drops little clues about her scar and the sinister Mummy who calls her every Wednesday. Eleanor hasn’t a clue how to fit in with normal social life; she makes faux pas because she takes things literally. This is a source of the book’s humour. It really is very funny; in many ways it reminded me of Adrian Mole. But the humour is two-way. We enjoy Eleanor’s acerbic comments about the strange things people do; she is like a Martian observing and wondering. But we are also laughing at Eleanor for her gaucheness.

But the hints keep coming about Eleanor’s troubled past and we are soon wondering whether she is not, actually, a little mad. Will she find love with the gorgeous pop singer or will she settle for scruffy Raymond from IT? Or will Mummy’s hate drive her to destruction? This book is a masterclass in foreshadowing.

Do I have a criticism? One tiny point of pedantry. Eleanor is a classics scholar and a pedant. So why does she use the phrase “the hoi polloi”? Hoi polloi is Greek for ‘the people’ so Eleanor is saying “the the people.” Inelegant. Oh, by the way, the Telegraph is NOT the best crossword; that honour belongs to the Guardian.

A stunning debut novel. So much humour, so much perception, so much horror.

On the other hand ...

The other members of my reading group hated this book. They found the characters and situation extraordinarily unconvincing. Detail after detail was condemned. The social worker wouldn't have done that, Eleanor would have refused to go to the hospital with Raymond, Raymond wouldn't have been so persistent, Eleanor would have known about Magners, Eleanor would have been unable to set up the modem to connect herself to the internet. These were but a few of their objections. Others I have left out for fear of presenting spoilers.

I think I enjoyed the character of Eleanor and the humour so much I was prepared to drift over details. But I worry about this style of critique. Yes, it may be true that very few people like Eleanor would have responded in a certain way but a novel isn't a documentary in which what happens is determined by sociological likelihood. A novel purports to say what this character did in this situation and the judgement call in the reader's mind has to be: can I believe in this particular character? I was happy to suspend disbelief about Eleanor and then to see into her profound loneliness. My reading group colleagues weren't.

And then again ...

I loaned this book to another friend: she read it in under 48 hours and loved it. She wasn't worried about documentary accuracy and she didn't think that Eleanor was autistic or Asperger's but just lonely and damaged; in fact she saw the whole story as events picking away at the cocoon Eleanor had built around herself so that she was forced to find a more sociable way to negotiate the world.

My favourite bits:
  • That palpable sense of Friday joy, everyone colluding with the lie that somehow the weekend would be amazing” (p 9)
  • If I'm ever unsure as to the correct course of action, I’ll think, ‘What would a ferret do?’” (p 13)
  • His eyes were light brown. They were light brown in the way that a rose is red, or that the sky is blue. They defined what it meant to be light brown.” (p 24)
  • I feel sorry for beautiful people. Beauty, from the moment you possess it, is already slipping away, ephemeral.” (p 28) 
  • The goal ultimately was successful camouflage as a human woman.” (p 30)
  • My face a scarred palimpsest of fire.” (p 30)
  • Terrible people danced in a terrible way to terrible music” (p 41)
  • It’s always nice to hear my first name spoken aloud by a human voice.” (p 51)
  • What was a muse anyway? I was familiar with the classical allusion, of course, but in modern-day practical terms, a muse seemed simply to be an attractive woman whom the artist wanted to sleep with.” (p 84) 
  • I have often noticed that people who routinely wear sports wear are the least likely salt to participate in athletic activity.” (p 99)
  • She looked at him with so much love that I had to turn away. At least I know what love looks like, I told myself. That's something. No one has ever looked at me like that, but I'd be able to recognise it if they ever did.” (p 106)
  • Imagine having to micturate in a row along side other men, strangers, acquaintances, friends, even? It must be dreadful. Just think how odd it would be if we had to display our genitals to one another” (p 202)
  • Go and sit in your empty little flat and watch television on your own, just like you do Every. Single. Night ... I sat down and watched television alone like I do Every. Single. Night .” (p 217)
  • It takes a long time to learn to live with loss, assuming you ever manage it. After all these years, I'm still something of a work in progress.” (p 236)
  • I was ready to rise from the ashes and be reborn.” (p 255)
  • Was I alive? I hoped so, but only because if this was the location of the afterlife, I'd be lodging an appeal immediately.” (p 273)
  • The lift had transported me back in time to that least belle of epoques - the 1980s.” (p 286) 
  • Such a strange unusual feeling - light, calm, as though I'd swallowed sunshine.” (p 314) 
Brilliant. Sept 2017, 383 pages

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