Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine Review
“There have been times when I felt that I might die of loneliness.”
I’m a sucker for a Costa Book Award winner. It’s how I discovered some of my favourite novels, like Frances Hardinge’s The Lie Tree and Emma Healey’s Elizabeth is Missing. Gail Honeyman’s debut novel Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine has caused quite a stir since its release last year, winning the Costa First Novel Book Award. I’d seen it top the book charts, heard nothing but good things and couldn’t resist the allure of the coveted prize sticker on the cover. To say it is a worthy winner is an understatement.
The thing about Honeyman’s novel is it doesn’t give much away upfront. I wasn’t quite sure what was in store when I turned the first page. The blurb introduces us to Eleanor Oliphant who leads a simple life in the same routine every day with two bottles of vodka every weekend. It tells us she’s happy. In fact; “Nothing is missing from her carefully timetabled existence. Except, sometimes, everything…”
It soon becomes clear that this is a story of loneliness. But, Eleanor isn’t a widowed, retired old lady on the outskirts of society; she’s a young, professional woman with a reason to leave the house each day. We’ve become so accustomed to the idea of loneliness being associated with age, but the truth is, anyone can be lonely. As someone who often struggles with loneliness, this struck such a deep chord with me that I found it difficult to read parts of this book. My heart ached for Eleanor, yet on some level it comforted me that I am not alone. One part in particular encapsulated the taboo nature of loneliness so perfectly, it brought me to tears:
“These days, loneliness is the new cancer – a shameful, embarrassing thing, brought upon yourself in some obscure way. A fearful, incurable thing, so horrifying that you dare not mention it; other people don’t want to hear the word spoken aloud for fear that they might too be afflicted, or that it might tempt fate into visiting a similar horror upon them.”
Words like “shameful” and “embarrassing” epitomise my experience of loneliness during my 20s. It’s something you don’t want to admit, not just to other people, but to yourself. It’s a dirty word; one that causes the atmosphere to shift when it touches it. In an age when we’re more connected than ever, living life through our phones and social media, it’s painfully apparent how isolated some of us really are. But, to admit that is unthinkable. Like cancer, loneliness is an insidious disease that has no real cure. It can be treated with companionship, but whether it truly leaves or not is a matter of making real and lasting connections.
Loneliness is where my similarity with Eleanor ends, though. She’s a very peculiar woman who is instantly recognisable – we all know the slightly strange outsider at work who never joins in with social gatherings or talks about their personal life. She is often the butt of the joke from her colleagues, yet she doesn’t fully understand why. Eleanor doesn’t know why her velcro shoes aren’t the height of fashion or why people concern themselves with gossip; “It never ceases to amaze me, the things they find interesting, amusing or unusual.” Coupled with her odd mannerisms, she doesn’t quite fit in anywhere she goes.
In many ways, Eleanor comes across as the lonely old lady Honeyman has tried to invert. Velcro shoes aside, she also uses a shopper and refers to her coat as a “jerkin”. She even speaks like someone wise beyond their years, as we learn elocution has been drilled into her from a young age. I spent the beginning of the book wondering whether she had some sort of learning disability, but as this is never addressed, I believe Eleanor is simply socially awkward from isolation and genuinely doesn’t know how to behave. This is exemplified when she has a makeover and her colleagues don’t make fun of her for a change;
“Was this how it worked, then, successful social integration? Wear some lipstick, go to the hairdressers and alternate the clothes you wear? Someone ought to write a book, or at least an explanatory pamphlet, and pass this information on.”
But, there’s also something else about Eleanor that makes her stand out from the crowd – half of her face is badly scarred. It doesn’t take long to guess this must have happened in a fire when she was younger, as this is implied early in the story and the cover has burned matchsticks on it. What we don’t learn until the end, however, is exactly what happened and what her “Mummy” has got to do with it. Her estranged mother is cruel and spiteful, often reducing her to tears on their weekly phone calls. We discover Eleanor has been in care from a young age, moving from foster home to foster home. Even now, she lives in sheltered housing with donated furniture and gets regular visits from social workers.
Honeyman also touches on the difficult subject of depression, as is often a consequence of loneliness. The book is divided into ‘Good Days’, ‘Bad Days’ and ‘Better Days’. The Bad Days are when Eleanor’s mental health is at its lowest; she finds herself lying naked on the kitchen floor, vodka in hand, contemplating how she wants to die. It is then she admits that she has been on the cusp of this for a while, revealing on the very darkest days, she could only get out of bed because her houseplant would die if she didn’t water it. Anyone who has been affected by debilitating depression will understand the feeling of being suicidal without really wanting to die;
“I have been waiting for death all my life. I do not mean that I actively wish to die, just that I do not really want to be alive.”
But, the overarching message of Honeyman’s story is the power of kindness. It is easy to forget that random acts of kindness, even the smallest of details, can mean so much to someone who is lonely. We watch Eleanor form an unlikely bond with Raymond, a colleague who works in IT, which is strengthened by a mutual encounter with an elderly chap called Sammy. Seeing the relationship develop between the three is utterly heartwarming and reminds us a little can go a long way. It also reminds us that no matter how different we may seem on the outside, we all crave the same things inside – companionship, friendship, and love.
Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine is a true gem. Tackling taboo subjects of loneliness and depression, as well as child abuse and PTSD, it is as important as it is remarkable. What could have been a heavy going story is alleviated by authentic characters that feel real, as though we could meet them in the middle of the street – we probably have come across an Eleanor or a Raymond or a Sammy at one point in our lives. If there is one thing to take away from Honeyman’s debut, it is be kind to those who may seem a little strange – they’re more like you than you think.
Until next time,