You can’t escape Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine if you go through new fiction on Amazon these days. The book, published in May by HarperCollins in the UK, has been the subject of a “fierce eight-way auction” and received “seven-figure advances”.
Beginning with an epigraph from The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone (2016), the novel is the debut work of Scottish writer Gail Honeyman (@GailHoneyman) and tells the tale of an eccentric thirty-year-old woman with a troubled past. As a work-in-progress, it gained recognition through the BBC’s Opening Lines competition, the Scottish Book Trust award and the Lucy Cavendish prize.
The novelist’s own story is particularly inspiring. In a Guardian profile, Honeyman mentions that she harbored a desire to write novels throughout her 20s and 30s but nothing really materialised then. Now 45, she says that her 40th birthday was “the wake-up call”. She thought: “even if I just put it away and don’t show it to anyone – I want to prove to myself I can get to the end.” It is okay if you have started late, the author points out: “A bit of perspective and life experience isn’t a bad thing. Anyway, if you start a new career at 40, you’ve still got another 35 years to go.”
So Eleanor Oliphant – as I picked up the book and began reading it the first thing I noticed (and liked) was a collapse of the distinction between “literary fiction” and “commercial fiction”. It is a fast-paced account told in an accessible language that deals with some big and heavy themes. Sylvia Plath’s classic The Bell Jar immediately came to mind, though I would say that overall Eleanor Oliphant has less darkness.
The eponymous character is the survivor of a tragedy, and has lived her life moving from one foster/care home to another. At 30, she has a simple life – she has worked as a finance clerk in a graphic design company for nine years (she has a BA in Classics). Everyday and every week is the same – clothes, meals, a few co-workers to whom she isn’t specially attached to (she does talk now and then to the new IT guy Raymond). And vodka, yes definitely – in which she can drown herself. She takes a certain amount of pride in the fact that she is by herself and not dependent on anyone, though there are times when she gets too conscious of how unappealing and unremarkable she really is.
Then one day she falls for a musician, stalks him from a distance on social media, and is determined to change herself for him and chase him down. What follows is a funny and painful sequence of events, during which delusions are shattered and walls are broken down. Ultimately, I would say I appreciated three main things about this novel: (1) its illumination of the dangers of the fantasy world of one-sided romance that people are foolishly entering into in our age of Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, (2) its tender portrayal of female-male friendship (as Sarah Perry also does in her own brilliant way in The Essex Serpent) and finally, (3) its emphasis on little acts of kindness, its insight into the value of reaching out to those who may be trapped and feeling mad in the suffocating loneliness of their apartments. I will surely be looking out for Gail Honeyman’s next book.
A few words:
Back to the wall, I slumped down, sprawled on the ground, the screaming in my ears, body still pounding. I vomited. I was alive. I was alone. There was no living thing in the universe that was more alone than me. Or more terrible.
I woke again. I had not closed the curtains and light was coming in, moonlight. The word connotes romance. I took one of my hands in the other, tried to imagine what it would feel like if it was another person’s hand holding mine. There have been times when I felt that I might die of loneliness. People sometimes say they might die of boredom, that they’re dying for a cup of tea, but for me, dying of loneliness is not hyperbole…
When I feel like that, my head drops and my shoulders slump and I ache, I physically ache, for human contact – I truly feel that I might tumble to the ground and pass away if someone doesn’t hold me, touch me. I don’t mean a lover – this recent madness aside, I had long since given up on any notion that another person might love me that way – but simply as a human being…
The scalp massage at the hairdresser, the flu jab I had last winter – the only time I experience touch is from people whom I am paying, and they are almost always wearing disposable gloves at the time. I’m merely stating the facts.