Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman
Eleanor Oliphant lives in Glasgow, is about to turn 30 and has worked in the same office for nine years. Everything about her life is structured: from the clothes she wears to the food she eats and the vodka she drinks every weekend. One day, Eleanor meets the man of her dreams and is determined to change.
You would be forgiven for thinking from the above description that Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine is a contemporary romantic comedy. Gail Honeyman’s novel is indeed witty (I laughed out loud several times) but it is also gut-wrenching, moving and completely surprised me. As the title suggests, this is a book about ‘what is underneath’ and explores the psychological effects of childhood trauma through the fascinating protagonist Eleanor Oliphant. Eleanor carries both physical and emotional reminders from her past; Honeyman gradually feeds us information (Eleanor’s scars, her weekly Wednesday phone call with her mother) till we feel we have the whole story, only to continually realise that we don’t. Some readers may find Eleanor a little isolating (at least initially).
This is the author’s enormous task that she’s set herself: to get readers to identify with and connect to a character with such a contradictory nature. Eleanor is both clever and naïve, childlike and opinionated, harsh and vulnerable. Yet Honeyman writes her with such affection and commitment that I started to truly get a sense of how Eleanor saw the world and how deeply affecting some interactions that many of us take for granted are for her. To see the world from different viewpoints is one of the great purposes of literature and Eleanor’s story is an important one. It is, in my opinion, an impressive achievement by the author – especially for a debut novel.
Amanda Rayner works as a bookseller at Readings Carlton.